Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Ninja Cherry Orchard

The night I went to see “The Ninja Cherry Orchard” over at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg its leading ninja Jason Liebman, called away to a national commercial shoot, was replaced with two other actors (the battle ready Stephen Heskett and Alexis Black. Hey, nunchucks don’t pay the bills!) Yet the stellar cast and crew managed to pull off this classic Russian drama meets circular Monty Python sketch without a hitch. Perhaps because “the show must go on” also happened to be the theme of “The Ninja Cherry Orchard,” its plot an actor’s ultimate Freudian nightmare. After all, what can be worse than performing Chekhov’s somber study of a dying aristocracy when your fellow thespians are continually being annihilated by a stealthy, sword-wielding Japanese assassin?

Writer/director Michael Gardner has struck high/low art gold in much the same way the scholarly Pythons did with their infamous dead parrot skit – only in this case it’s the “dead” actors that the remaining “living” cast must pretend are fine and dandy. Beginning with a fairly standard “Cherry Orchard” that introduces us to grand dame Lubov Andreyevna Ranevsky (a luminous and hilarious Kelley Rae O’Donnell) and her long-suffering relatives and servants Gardner’s play soon drops hints – “We used to run free in the ninja cherry orchard…with the ninjas” – that we’re not in Chekhov territory anymore. Nevertheless all runs smoothly until suddenly a line is interrupted mid sentence by the thumping sound of heavy metal music. The lights dim, a masked man in black bearing a sword appears. Within minutes he’s dispensed of half the cast in a deftly choreographed slaughter. Then he vanishes as quickly as he came, leaving only screaming horrified witnesses. It’s now the job of the old footman Friers (a delightfully dry Aaron Butler) to calm the cast and to get them to carry on like true professionals. Shuffling over to each of the “deceased” he says their lines while animating their limbs as if manipulating ventriloquist’s dummies. The “living” tentatively fall in step and continue with the show – or at least until the end of the act when the “dead” can be replaced with fresh thespians. New updates to the program – which include such dubious credits as Constantin Stanislavski in the role of Gaev and my favorite Ukrainian director Kira Muratova as Charlotta Ivanovna – are passed out. (Well, until the helpful crew member herself becomes a ninja casualty.) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Until this audience member was laughing so hard I could barely breathe.

By the time the absurdist comedy spirals into characters arming themselves with rifles, multiple ninjas attacking, the revelation of Fiers as a master destroyer of ancient Japanese warriors, and the “Karate Kid” style training of Lubov (who, of course, must chop down the ninja cherry orchard in order to kill the ninja) and the remaining villagers swaddled in white martial arts garb, we’re far, far away from the Russian playwright’s grave chamber piece. Or are we? Maybe the existential dread that hangs over “The Cherry Orchard” has finally found form in an actual tangible serial killer. Besides, the ante will be upped in any slow moving drama if there’s a ninja to keep at bay. Now if only “Life of Brian” had been around back in Chekhov’s day.