Though Anton Chekhov referred to his final play, The Cherry Orchard, as a comedy, most productions - at least in the United States - don't turn out that way. The Jovial Crew production at the Chekhov NOW Festival comes painfully close, though for all the wrong reasons.
With the basis for the production being a perfectly acceptable translation by Elisaveta Fen, director Darren Gobet has remade the show in an image equal parts bizarre and unwieldy. There is a germ of a workable idea present; the play's small group of characters who wish to hang on to the possession of their family's cherry orchard in the face of severe financial hardship is confronted - one may even say tormented - by a group of outsiders who want to remove them from the past and place them squarely in the modern day.
These outsiders are represented in the production as modern dress. Well, semi-modern goth/punk, at the very least, with the actors wearing microphones very close to their mouths so that their every line is played over the theater's sound system. (The central family performs without amplification.) The difference in their appearance from the crisply-costumed others is intentionally jarring, with Anna-Alisa BeloŘs's costumes smartly defining in which era each of the characters appears at any moment in time.
Equally effective is the production's use of projections, provided by John Stuart. Slides showing the current scene - the manor's living room, for example, or the orchard itself - are used to set the scenes, with very little in the way of other establishing set pieces or props. Other projections may provide quotes from the play to underscore the mood in the current scene, or specify how close the show is to completion.
But Gobert's innovation doesn't stop there. The occasional use of dance to highlight scene changes is clunky, as is a distracting tap dancing sequence occurring late in the show, when the fate of the orchard is made known. The show's players also have an obsession with paper, manipulating and throwing around torn and crumpled up photocopies of the script more often that they connect with one another emotionally. Gobert mentions in his director's notes in the program that, since the title of the play names something that vanishes by the end of the performance, "the play dares us - compels us even - to destroy it."
I couldn't have put it better myself. Gobert focuses so much on making his concept work, he forgets to spend time making the play itself work, though he spent plenty of time reorganizing it; the entire original text isn't used, but has been abridged and augmented with previously deleted material and new text by Jay Hawkins and the actors themselves. The result is bland, trying to hard to shock and surprise, but ignoring the important central moments of the play, the soul and personality that still attract people to the work after nearly 100 years. Gobert's ideas seem so of-the-moment that any relevance The Cherry Orchard once had is sucked away.
Of the actors, the most effective are those playing the original versions of the characters - Terria Joseph's Ranyevskaia, Alex Greenshields's Gayev, and especially Ted Hewlett in a bold take on Trofimov are the most effective at sifting through Gobert's chaff and finding the wheat of Chekhov's great play beneath. The performers playing the modern assailants on Ranyevskaia's family's way of life seem a bit confused and lost in the sea of conflicting images and paper that increasing litter the stage during the play.
Audience members - even fans of Chekhov - can expect to be similarly lost, though if you go in not expecting The Cherry Orchard you know and love, you might not come out disappointed.
The Fourth Annual Chekhov NOW Festival