It happens all the time: An ambitious contemporary playwright tries to interpret a canonical text — and, almost invariably, ends up with nothing more than an incomprehensible exercise in writerly vanity: Hamlet in drag; Tennessee Williams as a musical set in a heroin den in 1980s Milwaukee; Waiting for Godot performed by trained monkeys speaking Dutch. Not so for Sarah Ruhl's brilliant adaptation of Three Sisters earlier this season at Berkeley Rep, which kept the Chekhov drama's plot completely intact while using minor language tweaks to make the characters seem more three-dimensional, more alive, more relatable to modern audiences — and all without hitting you over the head with a capital-A adaptation. Combined with brilliant direction by Les Waters and historically accurate set dressing and costume design, the overall production was appropriately deferential without being flat, judiciously updated for modern audiences without being too self-consciously subversive. It was also perhaps the only time a dense Russian family drama has managed to earn genuine guffaws from an audience: a true feat of adaptation.
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