Since becoming the Source Theatre Company’s Artistic Director last November, Joe Banno—known for his inventive, illuminating stagings of Shakespeare’s dramas, including the Helen Hayes-nominated Cymbeline at Washington Shakespeare Company in 1996—has directed only one play: the well-received, suburban-set Romeo and Juliet for the Folger. Now, though, the director (who is also Washington City Paper’s opera critic) is focusing his energies on Source: guiding the struggling theater company around the wreckage of a massive administrative shake-up that almost buried it last year and putting the final touches on his updated production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The play, Chekhov’s last—in which a financially ruined family must sell its most beloved possession, the titular orchard—is about the social re-ordering that took place in Russia just before the Revolution. No wonder, then, that for his version set in the United States in the present day, Banno is using David Mamet’s translation to help give Chekhov’s themes a more accessible, contemporary feel.

“Mamet’s dialogue, from what research we’ve done, is actually pretty close to Russian speech patterns but, of course, sounds absolutely like modern American English—a lot of sentence fragments, a lot of thoughts being interrupted and rephrased, lots of ellipses and trailed-off, ambiguous statements,” Banno explains. “That helps because although Chekhov is virgin territory for me, I know that with Shakespeare and Molière, I feel most comfortable treating these classical plays—since they deal with so many universal issues—as if they were written for us today. I don’t see the need to make people leap over barriers of designs that place the plays in their original period. It’s just better, I think, to see these characters as people we know right now, today.”

Much more contemporary than Shakespeare’s plays (Orchard was first performed in 1904) and so closely identified with the country in which they were originally set, Chekhov’s dramas seem—at least on the surface—less likely candidates for the successful pop re-invention Banno is known for. “Overwhelmingly, at its heart, Cherry Orchard can be seen as a story about people today, the same class structures, the same dysfunctional family dynamics, the same…almost everything. I mean, these characters are not foreign and don’t need to be placed in historical contexts to make sense,” Banno argues. “Also, with this play, Chekhov’s moving into such new territory, out of the traditionally structured 19th-century play format into something that’s part vaudeville—something that predates absurdism, Beckett, and Ionesco. It’s very much character-driven rather than plot-driven. It’s a real nuthouse, a very funny play, too. You know, Chekhov considered it a comedy, in places even a farce, and I’m taking him at his word.”

Offbeat, comedic Chekhov, classics desecrated, campy musicals, late-night NC-17 fare, edgy new plays…these are all examples of what Banno wants to see done at the Source—in short, plays no other theater in town would ever imagine showcasing. “We’d love to have people get out of the Black Cat down the block and walk down the street and check us out. We want to do plays that push the envelope, that have some meat to them, without getting into that masturbatory esoterica,” Banno says. “I want us to recapture some of that experimental edge we used to have, but not lose the accessibility and the sense of in-your-face intimacy with the actors, where you’re practically right on stage with them. Right now, we’re the only theater in town that can do that.” —Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

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