Woody Allen’s film Love and Death is undoubtedly a mocking love letter to Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the tradition of skewering Russian literary giants, Austin’s own Ben Schave sends up Anton Chekhov in Gnap! Theater Project’s The Cherry Bowl, now onstage at Salvage Vanguard Theater.
Schave does this with a healthy dose of ridicule, but not without some affection, too. As the lights go up on the first scene, the entire cast is a frozen cartoon. We see a family of mourners surrounding a casket, their facial expressions running the gamut. Although a range of emotions is represented here, the characters all have one thing in common: they are grotesque, and silent.
The fabulous posters advertising this show promise “No dialogue, 100% Chekhov,” and, indeed, The Cherry Bowl borrows heavily from the commedia dell’arte genre with its sight gags, bum slaps, and general tomfoolery. Fans of physical comedy have a lot to celebrate here, though some of the bits could be typified as cheap shots. The Cherry Orchard is, after all, sacred ground in the theatre world. To even attempt such an approach takes some nerve.
After the death of her husband and a self-imposed exile in France, an aristocratic family matriarch (who is still sexay, y'all) returns to the family estate on the verge of bankruptcy. Considering the fact that said return follows a failed suicide attempt, it’s hard to believe Chekhov originally envisioned this story as a comedy. Yet in this way, Schave and company return the sordid tale to its roots, albeit in a manifestation that is more slapstick than the black comedy Chekhov likely intended it to be.
In the updated version, an opportunistic Lopakhin makes a motion to sell the orchard in order to build the Cherry Bowl Bar & Grill. Although this suggestion plays upon Austinites’ vulnerabilities in a chronically transforming urban landscape, it falls just short of horrifying longtime residents. Let’s face it, even those who have watched wide-eyed while landmarks like the Broken Spoke get swallowed, Godzilla-style, by loft developments, are quick to admit that a new restaurant is no bad thing.
The Cherry Bowl is like the opium-fueled dream of a Cherry Orchard director after six fiery weeks of rehearsal, too little sleep, and too much anxiety as opening night nears. It is that absurd bear in the middle of The Winter’s Tale.
Truth be told, some of the heady themes of the original play – those of class struggle and deep social change – are simply too complex to fully explore in a pantomime. Yet to expect such a thing from a production like this is unrealistic and beside the point. Instead, one would do well to relax and take a few cues from its playful characters: 1) Indulge in a fair quantity of Stolichnaya; and 2) Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
The Cherry Bowl runs through Nov. 23, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. Running time: 1 hr., 20 min. For more information, call 512/474-7886 or visit www.gnaptheater.org.
Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.