Season Nine – The Chekhovian Comedy

Looking back over all these years, I keep wondering why, and how, we picked these particular plays over others. I know we’ve never chosen a season organized around a single theme or a topic. We have always wanted variety, not similarity in our choices. We’ve done about 160 productions of about 130 different plays by some 50 different playwrights so we’ve done plays on just about every subject that can be dramatized. But now, looking back a quarter century, I see that our ninth season happened to be a season of four plays that all belonged to a particular genre with a pretty clear unifying theme. The plays were Tobacco Road by Jack Kirkland, The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, The Hostage by Brendan Behan, and Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth by Tom Stoppard.

The Cherry Orchard (1988)
Anya (Mary Guzzy), Mme. Rayevskay (Joan Kuder Bell) in The Cherry Orchard (1988)
All four are comedies, but comedies of a special type. Yes, there are jokes and laughs in all of them, but not as many as you would expect in a classical comedy. The characters are not dumb guys who are funny because of all the dumb things they do. There are no single-minded obsessive-compulsives we can feel superior to, like The Imaginary Invalid’s Argan, or Twelfth Night’s Malvolio, or Earnest’s two Ernests. Instead we are asked to sympathize with the characters in these plays, to understand them and to wish them well, but then to realize that, much as we have come to like them, they really need to go. They are outsiders; they don’t fit.

The Cherry Orchard (1988)
Mme. Rayevskay (Joan Kuder Bell), Varya (Pat Chilsen), Lopakhin (Alphonse Keasley) in The Cherry Orchard (1988)
The best name for this kind of play is, actually, Chekhovian comedy. The Cherry Orchard is about a rich Russian family that owns a considerable tract of land, that has everything going for it, but that cannot manage to capitalize on its holdings and survive. The play ends with the foreclosure of the family’s property, and the death of a servant who was left in the foreclosed house because no one remembered he was left behind. Technically, that is a kind of joke, but we are not asked to laugh at it.

Tobacco Road (1988)
Ada (Katherine Dubois Reed), Lov (Jim Fogelberg) in Tobacco Road (1988)

Tobacco Road is kind of an American version of the same story. It’s about a sharecropper family in Georgia in 1933 that is desperate to keep their tobacco farm, in the worst year of the depression, when they cannot pay for it. The Lesters in this play, just like the Ranevskys in Chekhov’s play, are simply unable to do what they need to do to keep their land. And there is a death in this comedy as well: Grandma was out in the tobacco fields when her son Jeeter decided to burn off the useless weeds growing there so he could plant more tobacco. That’s the same kind of joke.

Tobacco Road (1988)
Ada (Katherine Dubois Reed), Sister Belly (Lisa Lindgren), Ellie Mae (Vivian Sutherland), Pearl (Natalie Stengel), Jeeter (Richard Bell) in Tobacco Road (1988)


The Hostage (1989)
Meg (Katherine Dubois Reed), Ropeen (Erin Presley), The Mouse (Maggie Simms), Brigid (Julie Rumery), Mulleady (David Brigham), Rio Rita (Michael Bernsein), Bobo (Geni Klagstad) in The Hostage (1989)

And then there’s The Hostage: Dublin, mid twentieth century. A member of the IRA is in prison awaiting execution. The IRA kidnaps an English soldier and threatens to kill him if their man is executed. Where do they keep their hostage? Why, where else? In a brothel managed by ex-IRA leaders from the time of “The Troubles” of the 1920s. The hostage is killed at the end of the play, probably by his rescuers. The jokes never stop.All three of these plays take place in enclaves: separate little regions outside the greater society they are not really a part of. The cherry orchard itself is in some remote province of Russia; the tobacco farm is at the very bottom of the impoverished places in the American South during the worst year of the Depression. And the Hostage is imprisoned in a very strange brothel.

Julie Rumery, Timothy Reed, Geni Klagstad, Maggie Simms in The Hostage (1989)
Brigid (Julie Rumery), Leslie (Timothy Reed), Bobo (Geni Klagstad), The Mouse (Maggie Simms) in The Hostage (1989)

Dogg’s Hamlet takes this notion to an extreme. It takes place somewhere in England in a place where English is not spoken: the local language is Dogg. Schoolchildren rehearse and then perform a fifteen-minute version of Hamlet in English, a language they do not understand. They perform on a stage delivered to them by a delivery man who speaks English but not Dogg. Clearly this play is closer to traditional comedy than the others (but it has more deaths than the others as well). The second half of the production is Cahoot’s Macbeth. Cahoot is based on Pavel Kahout, a Czech director who produced underground performances of Shakespeare’s plays in Prague in the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The actors perform a version of Macbeth—in English.  They come to the scene where Banquo’s ghost arrives at a banquet. Banquo’s ghost is the delivery man of Dogg’s Hamlet. Now he speaks Dogg, and gradually all the Macbeth actors shift into a Dogg translation of the Play.

Geni Klagstad, Ann Eurich, Julie Rumery in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1989)
Baker (Geni Klagstad), Abel (Ann Eurich), Fox (Julie Rumery) in the first half of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1989)

Macbeth, of course, is about civil war and regicide, and the real subject matter of Cahoot’s Macbeth is the Velvet Revolution. And clearly The Hostage is about civil war. The other two are not about war, but they are certainly political. Both show a society, or part of a society in major disrepair. The Cherry Orchard does not really predict the Russian revolution, but it does show a society that is just asking for change. Similarly, Tobacco Road depicts a broken social order and cries for reform.

Colin Isenhart, Ann Eurich, Timothy Reed, Erin Presley, Geni Klagstad, Joan Kuder Bell in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1989)
Macbeth (Colin Isenhart), 2nd Actress (Ann Eurich), Macduff (Timothy Reed), 1st Actress (Erin Presley), 3rd Actress (Geni Klagstad), Lady Macbeth (Joan Kuder Bell) in the second half of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1989)

So, without knowing what we were doing we selected a season of four “Chekhovian” comedies with at least partially an appeal for political reform.

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