When a theater company commissions a playwright in the flush of his career to adapt a canonical work, it is banking on a bold new interpretation. When that play is Chekhov's Three Sisters and the writer is Tracy Letts, Tony- and Pulitzer-winner for August: Osage County and a proclaimed admirer of Tennessee Williams, the stage can expect fireworks.
Artists Repertory Theatre scored a coup by enlisting Letts for a world premiere, and it got what it wanted: This Three Sisters starts as a drama about quiet desolation, then takes the quiet behind the barn and shoots it. The production's sound design, which opens with birdsong, gradually fills with screams, raucous parties, shattering glass and gunfire. Letts has reimagined the bucolic Russian tragedy as a prime-time soap opera. This is Dallas longing for Moscow, with Chekhov's language pounding like a Siberian tiger on a hot tin roof.
In Letts' hands, that language has been roughed up, slapped around. The opening monologue from Olga (Andrea Frankle) is now interrupted by a guffaw of "Horseshit!" The climactic wail of baby sister Irina (Amaya Villazan) has been changed from "I am in total despair" to "I am in real pain"—the new wording strips the narcissism naked, revealing a demand for validation, like a Facebook status update. The blunt violence extends to Jon Kretzu's direction: When Natasha (Marjorie Tatum) upbraids a tired servant (Vana O'Brien), she backhands the old woman across the face.
Tatum's Natasha is the production's pint-sized force, the horrible girlfriend of Andrey Prozorov (Todd Van Voris). By Act II, she has become his much more horrible wife, screeching demands across a stage crowded by a grove of trees: a bitch among the birches. Her ascension is a blow to Andrey's titular siblings (also including Luisa Sermol as Masha), who even at their happiest seem on the verge of hysterical spells. By comparison, the men are lightweights, dithering and weakened by vodka. For worse or (mostly) better, Letts' Three Sisters is a claws-out catfight, with a hissable villainess pitted against three steel maples she tries to uproot. While its raw cries and whispers won't tell you anything about Russian social strictures—why are these ladies stuck in this house, again?—the new play can afford to amp the volume on the anguish because it understands the feeling beneath. It is in real pain.
Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays, 11 am Wednesdays May 27 and June 3. Closes June 14. $25-$47.