Monday, June 6, 2011

[The] Cherry Orchard

BY ANTON CHEKHOV

I have not seen a lot of Chekhov. Three Sisters and Marriage Proposal are the only two other plays I have seen by this playwright. In all cases, including the present one, I have been less than enamored by the production. I’m beginning to suspect that in all cases it is more a matter of Chekhov than the production, and it’s more a matter of the Slavic origins of the words than the acting. In translation the words simply don’t “sparkle” the way I expect them to in a first-class theatrical presentation. I’m beginning to suspect that the translation may be the key to presenting a program that is really alive with flesh and blood characters.

While I used the definite article in the name of the play for this posting's title, I omitted it in the names of the two other Chekhov plays I mention in the opening paragraph. Russian does not have articles; they get along just fine without them, thank you. (English is one of the minority of the world's languages that uses articles.) To me, omitting them makes a substantial difference in the timbre and tessitura of the language, if I may be permitted to borrow some musical terms to describe spoken rather than sung language.

That being said I should note that first of all this was a preview that I saw and the naturally occurring learning curve of the cast may have not yet had an opportunity to reach its full potential; the give and take of dialog at some points was not always believable. Second, this is an American production of what is clearly a Russian sensibility; I don’t think that Americans are completely at ease with Russians and their weltanschauung. Although I have personally known but two native Muscovites I find their personal views of life to be quite different from my own. They are, never-the-less, vivid and animated views that I somehow found lacking in this production. Perhaps it is something as simple as a cultural difference not fully understood.

Would I see more Chekhov? Absolutely. You can’t ignore one of the giants of early theatre. Would I see more Raven? Again, I’m firmly in the Raven camp. I even purchased next season’s subscription while I was there. This was a difficult production for me to love, but not everything in life can be stellar, after all. A different viewer may have a completely different reaction.

[The] Cherry Orchard now through July 23rd at Raven Theatre, 6157 N Clark Street Chicago IL 60660, Phone: (773) 338-2177  Email: info@raventheatre.com. Recommended for the serious theatre-goer.

In Arabia We'd All Be Kings

I found the text for this review stored on my hard drive during a house-cleaning excursion. I wrote it, but apparently didn't publish it. It's not very timely today, but I preserved it just so I could return some day to see what I may have thought about some experience.

And What a Kingdom It Is!

What would you do if you had to become a sex worker just to survive? What if your ability to earn your own way was so limited that you could do little else besides pass out leaflets and have sex with people you found unattractive? What if your choice was to panhandle and steal or sleep on park benches? If you’ve ever faced any of these kinds of choices, then you’ll probably find yourself nodding and even smiling a little as the denizens of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen struggle to maintain their place in the world during the gentrification of Times Square in the 1990s.
Director Joanie Schultz brings Stephen Adly Guirgis’ vignette of one of New York’s seediest bars vividly to life. For three days the patrons of this unnamed and undistinguished dive just two blocks from rapidly gentrifying Times Square come and go, bargain and connive, argue and fight, drink and do drugs, hook and have sex and generally choose the most inappropriate choices for advancing their own lives as they struggle to hang on to what little remains of their once tidy little world that is now literally vanishing before their very eyes.

Life is hard and these characters have been down and out for some time. They are not likely to ever regain their self-respect even slightly. Never-the-less, we watch in fascination as Skank (Johnathan Edwards) and Greer (D’Wayne Taylor) bargain over just what services Skank (ostensibly heterosexual) will provide to Greer. Eventually, he gives up nearly everything for twenty dollars. Chickie (Caroline Neff) tries her best to teach DeMaris (Rinska M. Prestinary) the fine points of prostitution, but fails as DeMaris repeatedly takes offense at being propositioned and calls every potential john who walks by a nigger (even when they are clearly not). The bar even has its chronic drunk, Sammy (Peter Esposito), who sits on his customary stool for most of the play, occasionally regaining consciousness and marginal coherence to utter some inappropriate remark. It is from Sammy that the title of the play derives during one of his bursts of verbiage.
The action runs non-stop and the dialog is machine-gun deadly. But you still find yourself immensely entertained despite the clearly dysfunctional and hopeless state of all of the characters. They are destined to fail, and fail they do. One by one they reveal their substantial flaws, try to take corrective action, and in the process only mire themselves deeper in the slime and grunge that eventually will destroy each of them, one at a time. These are outrageous characters, and you probably won’t meet people like this in ten years of a normal lifetime. Yet, under the skilled direction of Joanie Schultz and the well-schooled and crisp performances of the entire cast, you actually believe that you have been given the special privilege of watching this group of losers plunge headlong into the abyss of self-destruction.

In Arabia We’d all Be Kings makes no judgments and preaches no morals. It only records the action as it took place, and then lets the audience decide who is right and who is wrong, who is admirable and who is despicable.  In the end, of course, there is no right and wrong, good guys and bad guys or even saints and sinners. There is only life in Hell’s Kitchen as the actors come and go across the stage of existence in this famous New York neighborhood. We are merely given the privilege of watching, for three days, as some of its prominent citizens go about their daily existences, that to them, are probably no worse in their eyes than yours and mine are in ours.
Highly recommended, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm through February 28th, 2009 at The Steep Theater Co.,  www.steeptheatre.com, just steps East of the Berwyn stop on the Red Line. General admission is $18.00.