Joe Banno has lately been making the updating of classics into quite a career. His acclaimed Romeo and Juliet featured parochial school students who trysted beneath multiplex marquees. His Merchant of Venice had yupsters gabbing on cell phones. And his fiercely contemporary Tartuffe seemed to be taking place tomorrow afternoon in suburbia rather than in 17th-century France.
In each case, the director exhibited a knack for finding the precise visual or attitudinal oddities that could shake the evening’s familiar moments free of our memories without knocking the play for a loop in the process. Show him a scene traditionally played in doublets and hose, and he’ll make it seem utterly natural in Appalachia with backpacks.
Now, as the new artistic head of Source Theatre, he’s doing something similar with an entire company, dragging the exhausted troupe out of the rut it has gotten mired in over the last few years (while simultaneously reviewing opera for Washington City Paper and classical music for the Washington Post). No doubt, he can cook, too.
None of which quite prepares you for W.C. Fields imitations and penis jokes in The Cherry Orchard, but who’s to say that what works with Shakespeare and Molière won’t also do wonders for Chekhov? After all, the guy always claimed his plays were comedies. Nothing more annoyed him than directors who filled them with the rustle of decaying foliage.
“Is this really my Cherry Orchard?” Chekhov wondered after catching Stanislavski’s sigh-filled 1904 premiere at the Moscow Art Theatre. “Are these my types?…I describe life. It is a dull, philistine life. But it is not a tedious, whimpering life. First they turn me into a weeper and then into simply a boring writer.”
The irony, of course, has always been that Stanislavski’s version pretty much created Chekhov’s reputation, ensuring that the world would forever honor him in terms he’d have detested. Without the leap into seriousness, Chekhov might today be a mere footnote in theatrical history. With it, he’s a giant, but one of whom audiences have justifiably become wary. Who, after all, wants to sit through hours of turn-of-the-century Russian angst a full century after the fact? We’ve got angst of our own.
In his program notes, Banno serves notice that he’s staging a cheery Orchard, not the standard-issue regret-filled one. Forget suffocating sighs, forget autumnal images (except the few dry leaves that clutter the corners of Tony Cisek’s weatherbeaten setting), and definitely forget ennui.
Instead, expect Chekhov’s classic with a rejuvenating face lift. The evening begins with a pair of sharp sight gags involving domestic servants, then sneaks some Brechtian, audience-addressing focus shifts into what’s usually played as straight dialogue, and then develops by its third scene into an emphatically comic, high-speed traffic jam. The playwright’s phrasing has been Mametized by the David himself, the orchard’s locale moved to Horse Country, U.S.A., and the aristocratic Ranevskaya clan reconfigured as the sort of jet-setters who feel vaguely aimless every time they step outside their favorite disco.
No one actually mentions that charge cards have been cut off, but the ambience is definitively contemporary as family members and servants await the bankruptcy auction of the old homestead. They’re still the “types” Chekhov envisionedaccident-prone clerk, senile butler, aristocratic windbag, etc.and, as ever, they become overgrown children when they start sentimentalizing over the orchard they once frolicked in or the hobbyhorses and bookcases that have been in the family for generations.
In most other respects, though, these folks are cynically modern. The servants are unhesitant in adopting a brusque tone toward their social betters, while the masters clamor for attention with everything from form-fitting fashions to Michael Bolton haircuts. Attitude is everywhere, as is slapstick. Does a maid (shriekingly amusing Deb Gottesman) lust after a hunky valet (Eric Schoen in Pool Boy mode)? Count on her to crawl right over and mount him. Count also on a tray piled high with coffee cups nearly capsizing Chuck Young’s precariously upright butler. And on a cunningly placed cucumber briefly turning Brook Butterworth into a Crying Game joke.
As you’re probably sensing, the production’s approach to comedy is both broad and a trifle scattershot. Nixon jests bump up against pratfalls that wouldn’t have seemed a bit out of place in vaudeville, so that no opportunity for laughs is shortchanged. And much the same thing could be said of the evening’s underlying aesthetic, what with Mamet’s trademark stammers ensuring that the characters sound natural, and Dan Covey’s breathtakingly stylized lighting and Marie Schneggenburger’s drop-dead, iridescent fashions tugging insistently in altogether different directions.
After a while the approach gets pretty gimmicky, but with tomfoolery and hi-jinks all but nonstop in an evening that’s usually outfitted in a coat of mourning and languor, it’s hard to imagine most patrons arguing too vociferously.
Purists, on the other hand, are sure to find Banno’s take thoroughly annoying. One man on opening night stomped out well before intermission with a snarl twisting his lips and real fire in his eyes. And if he was looking for nobility of spirit, emotional complexity, class-consciousness, or any of countless other qualities generally associated with Chekhov, well…who could really blame him?
As I recall, there was also much gnashing of teeth among literary types a decade ago when Lucien Pintillie substituted a field of wheat for cherry trees in his breathtakingly visual production of this play for Arena Stage. He, too, emphasized comedy, mostly by having the characters cackle hysterically at each other, at themselves, at twists of fate, and at their plight. His Russian household laughed as if it could laugh away the forces that were about to tear it apart.
Not Banno’s American household. They’re playing farce, with that single-mindedness and concentration that all but banishes real feeling. Political points can still register, as when Jim Zidar’s crass capitalist floats his plan to replace the family orchard with a housing development, but don’t look for pathos. Not even when the empty-headed aristocrats played with giddy self-absorption by Kerry Waters and Rick Foucheux are finally put out of their home.
Usually, that’s accompanied by the dull thud of axes in the orchard and a sense that a way of life is passing. At Source, what you hear is a distant roar of chain saws, and what you sense is that the family’s checks will be bouncing for some time to come. It’s not quite as resonant, but, frankly, if you’ve seen other Cherry Orchards and can make the connections between what’s usually done and Banno’s deconstructionist tricks, you’re likely to have a grand time.CP