What do David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Weller, Samm-Art Williams, John Guare, Maria Irene Fornes and Spalding Gray have in common? That is, besides being among our best contemporary playwrights?
The answer is “Orchards,” an evening of seven one-act plays, each adapted from an original short story by Anton Chekhov. Presented by the Acting Company, “Orchards"--which debuts tonight at UC Riverside--will alternate with “As You Like It.”
Other stops are UC Santa Barbara on Saturday (“Orchards”) and Sunday (“As You Like It”) and UCLA on Thursday (“As You Like It”) and next Friday through April 13 (“Orchards”).
“Orchards” is the brainchild of Acting Company executive producer Margot Harley and is staged by Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
“When John Houseman asked me,” Falls said, “I thought it was the craziest, funniest project I’d ever heard of: to work with seven top-caliber writers-- plus Chekhov. . . . The writers had free range to adapt and interpret the work. When I came aboard, I’d read all of the short stories; then, one by one, each of the plays arrived. I asked each of the writers, ‘What do you want to do?’ Mamet said, ‘Nothing. It’s done.’ Samm-Art Williams said, ‘I want to hear it read.’ And he got very involved in previews, rehearsals, even going on the road. So did Irene Fornes.
“Everyone had a different approach, different style, different work methods. My task was to put together the pieces of the puzzle. How modern should it be? How Chekhovian? What should it look like? None of them knew what the others were doing. So I became like the cook: stirring all the wonderful, pungent ingredients and making it into something. At the same time, I had to just leave it alone.”
Mamet’s “Vint,” the piece most closely resembling the Chekhov, is set in the office of a Moscow bureaucrat, “who comes back to work one night and finds his subordinates playing cards--but instead of using cards, they’re using personal dossiers,” Mamet said.
“I thought I understood what Chekhov was trying to say. The tone is, I hope, the same: ironic.” As for the cultural stretch he’s employed, “It doesn’t matter that I’m writing about Russians. If a guy’s an architect, it doesn’t matter who he’s building a house for.”
Added Wasserstein, whose two- character piece, “The Man in a Case,” is also set in period: “It’s about finding out the emotional truths--and they don’t change that much. Here’s a girl (would-be fiancee of the fickle “Man”) who’s in her 30s, smart. Why does she want to marry the schoolteacher? How is she lonely? Even in 1898, you start to get into the same things that (her “Isn’t It Romantic” heroine) Janie Blumberg did.”
As for the tone: “Like Chekhov, it’s not ‘one-two-three-laugh,’ it’s much more wistful than that.”
Williams offered his own perspective. “Chekhov is always thought of as so academic--and he isn’t . I wanted to do something funny, so I used his premise--and added my imagination. A story about somebody who marries two women and expects to get away with it has got to be funny.”
His “Eve of the Trial,” transplanted to Louisiana, 1919, concerns just such a Russian expatriate bigamist, holed up in a boarding house and about to face a hanging judge the next day.
“I’ve done adaptations of musical works before, but this is different,” he said. “Usually, American writers aren’t chosen for adaptations; people would rather import one. I find it strange, since American theater is the most alive.”
And in the case of Weller’s “A Dopey Fairy Tale,” fanciful as well. Chekhov’s treatise of a clerk who loses all faith in a skit after it’s criticized has become the story of a boy who’s beaten up and loses his cherished ability to mimic.
“I kept the moral--that a person has to have courage in himself,” Weller said. “Also, I was reading a lot of Russian fairy tales at the time, and I started recognizing certain conventions: the magical helper, the virtue of being tested.”
His own story, which features a princess, king, queen and a dog that talks, “is not a bit Chekhovian. Though I fancy Chekhov would’ve gotten a big kick out of it.”