Mainstage Theatre takes a new look at a classic

The “Three Sisters” (from left), Masha (Megan Stapleton), Olga (Caitlin Wolf, standing) and Irina (Sola Thompson), rehearse as Fly Steffens makes notations to the script of the adaptation she wrote. (Photo by Troye Fox)

The “Three Sisters” being presented by UWM’s Peck School of the Arts Theatre Department May 2-6 is an original adaptation directed by Associate Professor Rebecca Holderness and crafted by student Fly Steffens – a “to-the-point, blunt take on what’s happening in this play.”

Holderness, director of the Mainstage Theatre production, describes playwright Anton Chekhov as “a seminal writer in theatre literature, whose works you want an audience and your students to experience. He was one of the first to explore the lives of people in all of their dimensions.”

“This adaptation is a creature unto itself,” says Holderness. While this adaptation is a little different, it preserves the most powerful aspects of Chekhov’s play, she adds. “The play is re-directed slightly for a new audience without hurting the essence.”

Using the analogy of wine and cognac, Holderness likens the new adaptation as “from the same grape but of a different concentration – more of a cognac than a wine.”

The need for the new adaptation became apparent when Holderness asked Steffens, who had worked as a dramaturg and assistant director on “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” to work with her on “Three Sisters.” As they began their research, they discovered that none of the adaptations matched the concept Holderness had for the play.

Steffens, a senior in the Theatre Department’s playwriting program, began writing a new version. She has been working since October 2011 on several drafts of the adaptation (finishing the final one during production).

Steffens looked at different versions of the play. “I strove to keep the core of what happens in the play but highlight aspects that really serve the production,” she says. For example, there is a line that is repeated by all of the characters in the play – “What difference does it make?” Steffens says that with the wordiness of other texts, “that incantation effect is lost.”

She adds that quickening the pace of the play also brings out the humor, “instead of it getting lost in the weight of all those words.”

Another difference in this adaptation is the addition of original music. While researching the play, Holderness and Steffens encountered a musical version of “Three Sisters.” They decided that having characters sing could help display the deep emotions of the play.

Bill Barclay, resident music director at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., was tapped to write the score that is played by an on-stage band during interludes and when some of the play’s text is sung by the actors. (The professional theatre company is a partner with the Peck School of the Arts.)

And, while this production’s lavish period costumes are consistent with the play’s usual presentation, the staging is different. “The play’s original setting is from the era of the proscenium stage,” says Holderness. “Our set moves that forward, integrating the indoors and outdoors, with a quite elegant result.”

All performances take place at the Mainstage Theatre. Tickets are $17/general public and $12/students, seniors and alumni. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. except Sunday, when the performance begins at 2 p.m. Tickets may be ordered through the Peck School Box Office, 414-229-4308, or at arts.uwm.edu/tickets.