“Orchards” is the brainchild of Anne Cattaneo, dramaturg of the Acting Company, the national touring ensemble that brings classical repertory theater to universities and art centers. Cattaneo hit upon the idea of taking seven short stories by Chekhov and commissioning seven American playwrights to adapt them as one-act plays intended to be performed together. The texts of the plays are now published alongside the original stories.
The idea was bold, even hazardous, for not only were the stories chosen extremely varied in character, so too were the playwrights.
Most faithful to Chekhov is David Mamet. Chekhov himself was the first to realize that many of his early stories, consisting largely of dialogue, could be easily transferred to the stage. Mamet made the same discovery. Resisting the temptation to improve on Chekhov, he has produced an attractively straightforward version of the comic story “Vint,” in which a group of civil servants give an original twist to a popular card game.
Wendy Wasserstein also retains the Russian setting in “Man in a Case,” though not very comfortably: No Russian woman in 1898 would wear “a black wig during the week, and a blond wig on Saturday nights.” Whereas Chekhov’s narrator is unequivocal in denouncing the authoritarian schoolmaster--burying people like that is pleasant, he comments--Wasserstein is more indulgent, and her play less striking. Her schoolmaster is aware of his foibles and can be amusing and sentimental, and the rift with his fiancee seems little more than a comic tiff. Significantly, this is the one story taken from Chekhov’s mature period.
At the other extreme to Mamet and Wasserstein, Maria Irene Fornes and Spalding Gray opt to do their own thing. The results--Fornes’ delicately structured surrealist playlet “Drowning” and Spalding’s rambling monologue, “Rivkala’s Ring,” about the feats besetting modern American man (“If I can’t sleep because of anxiety, I seek a more anxious state outside of myself. And that is almost always the late news.”)--have to be judged on their own terms; they have nothing to do with Chekhov.
Somewhere in between come John Guare, Michael Weller and Samm-Art Williams. In “The Talking Dog,” Guare has the inspired idea of making Chekhov’s young couple go hang-gliding together instead of tobogganing.
Another talking dog, Chatter, is given all the best lines in Weller’s “A Dopey Fairy Tale.” Certain that his fellow playwrights would be overreverent towards Chekhov, Weller disarms criticism of his spoof fairy tale by pointing out that it is “based loosely, very loosely, on A. Chekhov . . . actually, the Chekhov’s short story ‘The Skit’,” and he has fun with Chekhovian allusions. “I am in mourning for my life,” explains Gladys, the Sad-Eyed Princess. “No, that’s wrong. I am a seagull. No, that’s not it.” “She’s a real hoot, this one,” comments Chatter. Chekhov would have lapped it up.
Most ambitious, and most successful, is Samm-Art Williams with “Eve of the Trial.” Williams has taken Chekhov’s basic situation, transferred the setting to “a run-down rural rooming house just outside Baton Rouge” in August, 1919, enlarged the cast, piled on the local atmosphere (there is even an offstage chorus of crickets and hooting owls that would have delighted Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater) and expanded the plot to take in the Bolshevik Revolution. The result is a full-blooded traditional drama in one act.
Audiences who go to see “Orchards” will not learn much about Chekhov, except that his early stories are full of surprises. What they will undoubtedly learn a great deal about is the state of the dramatic art as practiced in America in the late 1980s. The diversity of approach of the seven playwrights is the real strength and fascination of “Orchards.”