El Nogalar
El Nogalar Credit: Eric Y. Exit

El Nogalar Goodman Theatre

I’d like to see some hard statistics on productions of Anton Chekhov plays in America over the last, say, ten years. I have a feeling they’d show his numbers going up at a pretty solid rate—and getting significant bumps during events like the mortgage crisis, the Madoff scandal, and the gulf oil spill.

Chekhov is simply right for our times. Set in Russia after the emancipation of the serfs but before the revolution, his four greatest plays deal with a society in a state of transformation: old ways falling, new social arrangements rising, assets and energies changing hands, pure things—like forests and ideals—getting despoiled.

Perhaps a little ominously, the Chekhovian quartet is getting a considerable amount of play in Chicago these days. We’ve had Uncle Vanyas, domestic and foreign, coming out our ears. Piven Theatre staged Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Three Sisters last fall. And the Goodman Theatre put together a kind of Chekhov sandwich: having started with Robert Falls’s staging of The Seagull, the smaller of the Goodman’s two stages is now concluding its 2010-’11 season by hosting the Teatro Vista production of El Nogalar, a frustrating rewrite of The Cherry Orchard, written by local phenom Tanya Saracho.

Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard tells the tale of a wealthy old family on its last legs. Madame Ranevskaya has spent years in Paris, finding expensive ways to forget the deaths of her husband and young son. Now she’s out of funds and back at the country estate, which has been tended all this time by her eldest daughter, Varya. Trouble is, the estate is out of funds, too—on the verge of being auctioned off, in fact. Lopakhin, a clever commoner with new wealth and an irrational affection for the landed gentry, advises Ranevskaya to subdivide her property and build vacation cottages on it. But that would mean cutting down a vast, old orchard. Frivolous as she is, Ranevskaya can’t bring herself to do that.

Saracho has transferred the narrative to present-day Mexico. Bianca-Jagger thin, Jackie-O stylish, and chiihuahua jittery, Maité—the Madame Ranevskaya of the piece—has just flown from New York to her casa grande near Monterrey, where Varya/Valeria walks around with a ring of keys, turning off lights to save electricity, Lopez/Lopakhin sneaks naps in a bed that was allegedly once owned by a Mexican president, and the trees in the orchard produce pecans rather than cherries.

Lopez is still an arriviste like Lopakhin, but now he prospers at the pleasure of a drug kingpin who’s taken control of the area by either buying out or murdering former owners. Gangsters have in fact turned Monterrey into a killing ground, and bringing them into Chekhov’s plot is one of the most interesting and original things Saracho has done here. That the likely inheritors of the orchard aren’t honest common folk but vicious criminals not only ups the stakes but invites all kinds of questions about the forces that led to this civic horror and how Maité and her land-rich forebears contributed to it.

But Saracho’s innovation also makes El Nogalar fundamentally different from The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov’s play has its grand cultural and economic issues, but it uses them as a way to get inside individual hearts. To tease out the pain of people stuck in a system that denies them—that weirdly makes them deny themselves—happiness. By adding the threat of gangland violence to the problem of the orchard, Saracho has turned that dynamic upside down. El Nogalar is a political play.

Which would be fine except that Saracho doesn’t seem to realize that. At least, not all the time. For the most part, her adaptation comes across as an attempt at cross-cultural mimicry—and a failed one at that, since Saracho tries to finesse much of the detail and subtle coloration Chekhov built into his play. At times, the only way you know what’s supposed to be happening in El Nogalar is by knowing what actually does happen in The Cherry Orchard.

Cecilie Keenan’s fussy production doesn’t help. The stage is dominated by an outsize dollhouse that seems to want to be a metaphor but hasn’t figured out how. Meanwhile, a bunch of good actors are left with not much more to do than stand around it, dithering.   v

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