The poster for "Orchards" says it all: The face of Anton Chekhov -- the familiar wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose -- gazes pensively at the viewer. Around it are seven smaller versions of the same portrait.
But hold on! In the smaller portraits, the revered Russian writer is sporting a fairly irreverent array of contemporary eye gear -- everything from heart-shaped shades, wraparound ski glasses and aviator frames to preppie Wayfarers and new wave goggles that resemble sunbursts.
It makes perfect sense if you know that "Orchards," which the Acting Company brings to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Wednesday for a six-performance run, is an evening of seven Chekhov short stories, adapted for the stage by seven contemporary American playwrights. Here is Chekhov reflected through the eyes -- not to mention the idiosyncratic styles -- of Maria Irene Fornes, Spalding Gray, John Guare, David Mamet, Wendy Wasserstein, Michael Weller and Samm-Art Williams.
"There is something cheeky and impudent about it -- young masters doodling on a great master," acknowledges director Robert Falls, who staged the anthology. "But I think Chekhov would be amused and delighted to see how his fellow writers approached the same images.
"If you look behind those spectacles on his nose, there's a very wise and knowing expression. 'Orchards' is very much about how one sees the frailties of the world -- with loving, nonjudgmental, whimsical and sometimes harsh eyes. That's what Chekhov did and that's what these writers are doing." Falls was argued down when he proposed calling the evening "A Chekhov Spectacle" (pun intentional). But he's arranged it so that the final image is a mammoth 25-foot pair of glasses, rising up out of the stage.
The idea for "Orchards" was hatched in late 1984 by Anne Cattaneo, then dramaturge for the Acting Company, the classical ensemble troupe that serves as the official touring arm of the Kennedy Center. "The company had done Chekhov before, but they wanted something different," Cattaneo says. "So I decided to take a look at some of his stories. I found there was a much greater variety and range to them than I had remembered. Some of them were art, but Chekhov whipped off others in order to support his medical studies and his family for publications that are the equivalent of, say, Hunting Magazine or Reader's Digest. It took me a while to track them down."
After two months in the New York Public Library and the libraries of Columbia and New York universities, Cattaneo ended up with a "wonderful assortment" of stories, but so diverse in mood and subject matter that "I couldn't think of one adapter to do them all. Then I thought, 'Why not ask a variety of American writers, from Broadway to the avant-garde?' -- all of whom I see as a great family of playwrights."
Woody Allen and Sam Shepard never responded to her proposal. David Rabe, Christopher Durang and Wallace Shawn pleaded busy schedules. Lanford Wilson agreed, until a back injury sidelined him. The others leaped at the opportunity, even though the $1,000 commission, plus the promise of royalties, were about as lucrative, in Wasserstein's words, "as one of my Arizona land deals."
Cattaneo selected the particular story she thought appropriate for each writer and then asked him to "respond" to it. The results ranged from Wasserstein's fairly traditional rendering to Gray's tripped-out autobiographical monologue that seemingly bears little connection to Chekhov. Guare's story ("The Joke") involved two people sledding; he set them hang gliding in the Catskills instead. Fornes came up with a three-act play that lasts about seven minutes, while Weller produced an outlandish fable that, he says proudly, is "pretty silly."
The plays opened in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., in September 1985 and have been traveling about the country ever since. "The project was not conceived to be a beauty contest, with people coming away saying 'Oh, I liked Mamet's play better than Guare's,' " explains Cattaneo. "It was really to show how much Chekhov is the father of modern drama. The response has been radically different every place they've played. The big cities tend to relate to the odder pieces -- Fornes and Spalding. In the South, Samm-Art Williams' play got standing ovations. Each play has found its own audience somewhere."
For Weller, the author of "Moonchildren" and "Loose Ends," the mere prospect of a theater company commissioning a piece was welcome news. "It gets me off my butt for one thing, and it means that someone wants a play from me, which I don't always feel," he says. For a while, however, he was stymied about what to do with "The Skit," the tale of a provincial clerk who has written a sketch, which he proceeds to read to a group of appreciative friends. Little by little, his friends allow themselves to point out certain passages that might be offensive to the town VIPs. In the end, the clerk is so afraid of landing in hot water that he rips up his skit.
"I guess I feared that everybody was going to be a bit reverential -- because this is Chekhov -- and maybe the evening would be a bit sour," Weller explains. "So I decided to cut loose and write a play that the actors would have a whale of a time playing. It's the escape hatch of the evening."
He turned the clerk into a boy who imitates people, including the town magistrate; set the action in a never-never landscape populated by a magic frog, a talking dog and a beautiful princess; and baptized the whole affair "A Dopey Fairy Tale." "It's a complete travesty, with lines from famous plays quoted out of context so they sound silly," he says. "But I feel I pulled it off all right. I'm not squirming and thinking, 'People paid money to see this!' "
Wasserstein retained the time period (1898) and the setting (provincial Russia) of her story, "The Man in a Case," in which two old men talk about a fussy, compulsive schoolteacher from their home town who almost got married once, but didn't. She chose, however, to put the schoolteacher and his fiance' on stage and build her play around the moment the schoolteacher decided marriage was not for him.
The author of such breezy, contemporary comedies as "Isn't It Romantic?" and "Uncommon Women and Others," she says, "I remember telling Annie [Cattaneo], 'This story isn't very funny, you know.' There was no way I was going to be able to write like Chekhov. But I didn't just want to do Wasserstein, either. So I guess what I attempted to do was find the fine line between us, to merge us, and still keep it in the Chekhovian tone. Trying to get under another writer's skin is what made it interesting for me."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet ("Glengarry Glen Ross") found the task of adapting "Vint," a story abut card players, very akin to translating. But Samm-Art Williams, author of "Home," retold "The Eve of the Trial" in the vernacular of the American South, drawing freely on his North Carolina roots. ("I owe them a lot, my roots," he says.)
As Chekhov related it, "The Eve of the Trial" concerns a man who is about to stand trial for bigamy. The night before, he stops at an inn and, unbeknownst to him, meets and befriends the judge who is going to try him. "You want to stay faithful to the flavor of the original," Williams says. "But I don't know anything about Russia. And I know a little bit about Chekhov. So you use your own resources."
The central character in Williams' play, set in Louisiana in 1919, is a Russian who is trapped in the United States after the Russian Revolution, marries two prostitutes in Charleston, S.C., and then, hearing that bigamy is legal in Utah, sets sail with his spouses. They all get so drunk on the boat that when it pulls up in Baton Rouge, La., they reel off, thinking it's Mormon country. That's when the Russian meets his judge.
"I think it's some of the funniest stuff I've ever written, as far out as I can get," says Williams. "You don't get a chance to do this sort of thing, so when it comes, you jump at it. Getting seven writers together on the same project is unheard of. I felt I was part of history."
The Cuban-born Fornes, whose off-Broadway credits include "Fefu and Her Friends," almost sent back "Drowning," the story assigned to her. "I didn't even feel there was a complete story there, just two or three pages with an ambivalent ending," she says. In it, a man, who makes a living by pretending to drown himself, bargains with an aristocratic customer over an acceptable fee, after which he throws himself into the water and performs his drowning act. He then collects his kopecks and walks off.
"I couldn't understand if this was an allegorical situation or if a drowning act was something that was actually done," Fornes says. "But I began feeling very moved by this drowning man, who walks away wet and lonely at the end. Even when I wasn't thinking about the play I was supposed to write, I was thinking about him -- his size, his humiliation, the way he boasted about doing the best drowning act possible. I could picture him -- a very large man who looks almost like an animal, a combination of a man and a sea lion with the skin of a seal."
Fornes chose to interpret "Drowning" metaphorically and postulated an unrequited love affair between the man she saw as part animal (the actor wears a grotesque mask and a heavily padded costume) and a woman whom he first spots in a newspaper photograph. The brief, surrealistic play takes place in a cafe' in an unnamed Middle European country in the 1930s or '40s. "All I was able to use was the figure of the man in the story, his physical presence and his sadness. If I had been asked to do a more faithful adaptation, I would have requested another story," she says. "In the end, I loved being given total freedom to do exactly what I wanted."
Gray also took off on a personal tangent as he is wont to do in the autobiographical monologues ("Swimming to Cambodia," "Sex and Death to the Age of 14") that have brought him widespread attention. He was given "The Witch," read it through once ("I'm a slow reader, but I retained all the images") and then sat down and wrote a 25-minute monologue, beginning, "The day the Chekhov short story arrived . . ."
Chekhov's story examines the jealousy, fantasies and paranoia a husband experiences one stormy night, after his wife has flirted with the postman earlier in the evening. Gray's play, "Rivkala's Ring," is Gray talking about himself, Hollywood (where he was living at the time) and his own sense of paranoia.
"I'm a total solipsist," he says. "I believe we see the world through our own prism. I'm being as true to Chekhov as I can by being true to myself and what his story brought up in me. I looked for the parallels in my own life. Actually, while I was writing, the Santa Ana winds were turning trucks over on the freeway and blowing over palm trees; I happened to be with a woman, a Russian Jew, and I got relief by kissing her grandmother's ring -- just like in the story. My play is true; I don't fictionalize. I also think it's very Chekhovian, in the sense that I am a Chekhovian, living Chekhovian times, passionate, prerevolutionary, decadent times."
Gray's play concludes the bill and director Falls thinks that's entirely appropriate. "In the same way that Chekhov is obsessed with the minutiae of life, the little hurts and jealousies, Gray shows us one man trying to make sense of the chaos of the universe," he says. "After this whole evening of varied plays and actors, it all comes down to one guy, wandering around the forest of his mind."
Because the Acting Company spends about 40 weeks a year touring to as many as 41 states, it was imperative to come up with a simple set that would house the sundry fruits of "Orchards." The solution of designer Adrianne Lobel -- an abstract landscape with tubular poles for the forest and a horizontal steel beam suggesting a distant lake -- also pays its subtle acknowledgments to Chekhov. In contemporary terms, it intentionally recalls the first-act setting of "The Seagull."
It was in that provincial park at sundown, remember, that the aspiring playwright Constantin Treplov voiced his passionate aspirations for the theater. "What we need is a new kind of theater," he said. "New forms are what we need."
The creators of "Orchards" appear to have heard him.