After years, the owners return to the villa, which they left to their black servants and a strange uncle. But now they are forced to sell the property. The play Cherry Man, already written for the Prague National Theater by the respected Russian playwright Ivan Vyrypajev, had the prerequisites to become the event of the season. It reckons with the war in Ukraine as an epoch, but it did not meet expectations.
Few of the contemporary Russian playwrights enjoy such interest abroad as Vyrypayev. The forty-nine-year-old native of Irkutsk, Siberia, can adapt the topic to the European environment and at the same time criticize the old continent.
Already in his first works from the turn of the millennium, he quoted or paraphrased foreign material, from the Bible to the play Valentyn and Valentyn by the playwright Mikhail Roshcin. He experimented on the border of lyrical prose, free verse and drama. Artistically defining for him was the move to Moscow, where he began to collaborate with creators of a generation older in the famous theater Teatr.doc. It was there in 2002 that he presented the award-winning project Kyslík, which was later also filmed and presented at the Karlovy Vary festival. A direct path to success led from him, first at home, and later also abroad.
After commissions in Poland and Germany, Vyrypajev has now written a play for the National Theater in Prague. It had its premiere the week before last at the Estates Theater, but it apparently began to be born before last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had a strong impact on the playwright living in Poland. Because of the war, he severed ties with his homeland, and since he has a Polish wife, he accepted Polish citizenship. He would no longer be able to return to Russia, he faces ten years in prison for allegedly defaming the army. All these dramatic events also affected Cherry Man, with whom the artist, according to the statement in the program, is now ending his career.
The game is more than problematic. Vyrypayev’s complex allusive world, in which the viewer must separate what is meant seriously from irony and mystification, is itself an example of chaos woven into order. This is usually the form itself.
This time, however, it was as if the playwright was unable to control the chaos. The text rambles in all directions and flows from one idea to another. Now and then a well-known, mostly proven principle of his earlier works flashes through, but the essential subversiveness characteristic of Vyrypaev is missing. Just because something gets under your skin doesn’t mean it’s comprehensible.
Pavlína Štorková as Jerry and Radúz Mácha as Tom. | Photo: Martin Špelda
Cherry Man, or Cherry Man, paraphrases Cherry Orchard, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s last play from the beginning of the 20th century. In it, the owners return to the indebted Russian estate, which they have to sell along with the beautiful orchard.
The novel, on the other hand, takes place in America. In the house, which the owners decide to get rid of, played by Radúz Mácha and Pavlína Štorková, live two servants with a more than strange uncle Bernard, played by Vladimír Javorský. He considers himself a Russian, a kind of serf, and sentimentally remembers the old days under the tsar, when sour cherries were still dried and canned. He is an obvious double of the old butler Firs, whom the manor at the end of the Cherry Orchard forgot in the already sold estate. Bernard represents the past and can also be a joking association with another Chekhov character, Uncle Vanya from the drama of the same name.
At the same time, Bernard is a cook. He saturates the others with his food and cooks Prcko, the Korean neighbors’ dog, to welcome the unsuspecting owners of the house. The mention of the eaten animal refers to the monodrama How I Ate a Dog by another contemporary Russian playwright, Yevgeny Grishkov. However, more than with him, Vyrypayev strives for a dialogue with Chekhov.
The characters of this classic did not arrive at major decisions in their conversations, rather they filled space and time with words. At Vyrypajev’s, the owners of the house and their subtenants sometimes have remotely similar conversations, but at the same time they try to touch on all possible current topics: war, different sexual orientations, racism, xenophobia, and sexual scandals in the church. Everything in a very incorrect presentation, moreover, unnecessarily violently broken into absurdity.
The owners of the house are called Tom and Jerry, but the genre of absurd grotesque is more filled by one of the African-American servants Daniel, who is – and he himself reminds it in every line – after death. Which does not prevent him from entering the story and commenting on it in various, in this case really funny ways.
The story culminates with a metaphorical fire ignited by the cherry tree punishment as an apocalypse, already caused by the so-called cherry people, and the realization that their time is coming to an end. The cherry man here is Uncle Bernard, an American with an assumed Russian identity. It’s hard to read it other than that the playwright, however pro-European, also perceives the current Russian war in Ukraine through the lens of the former bipolar world – which is surprising for a text from the present.
Vyrypajev’s plays are more suited to a chamber environment and a minimum of scenic means. Staging Cherry Man on the big stage of the Stavovský Theater would be difficult even for directors who have already worked with postmodernism, such as Jan Frič. His two-year-old production of Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Železnova on the same stage expressed the distress and fear of the end of civilization much more intensely than Cherry Man.
The novel was originally to be directed by the author himself in Prague, but the thirty-one-year-old Kasha Jandáčková eventually took over. It is the first time he works in such a large space and with a drama similar in style, which can be seen in the result. It is based on a large and descriptive scenography by Ján Tereba. The luxury house on the stage was designed in the spirit of the so-called raumplan, an architectural term by Adolf Loos denoting a situation where the heights of individual rooms in the house are graded according to their function and symbolic meaning.
On the scene, however, reality is supplemented by other elements that make it difficult for the viewer to orientate themselves and, moreover, contradict each other aesthetically and meaningfully. A rear projection of the horizon behind the house alternates between a view of a cactus field on a prairie with pre-rolled intimate details of the actors’ faces. In the background, a person in a red full-body latex dog mask moves ghostly. It’s hard to say why, when in this world even the dead speak and look like ordinary mortals.
Pavlína Štorková in the role of Jerry and Šimon Krupa as Daniel. | Photo: Martin Špelda
The director lets herself be carried away by the genre of absurdity suggested by the author, so much so that in the end she even brings the original inhabitants of the USA to the scene. When the purifying fire is to be lit, according to the romantic idea, it must be done by Indians unsullied by civilization. Deranged Uncle Bernard with a feather headdress finally finds his true identity. How this directorial solution relates to Cherry Man’s original text is anyone’s guess.
The play, which was written by a foreign creator directly for the first Czech stage, already aroused interest. However, the result collapses on many levels, from the initial artistic and personal problems of the author to insufficient dramaturgical intervention at the time of the creation of the text to the unfortunate choice of an inexperienced director.
Kasha Jandáčková believed too much in a volatile model rather than trying to clarify it and highlight one theme in it. If Ivan Vyrypayev is really saying goodbye with this text, it’s a somewhat clueless ending.
Ivan Vyrypayev: Cherry Man
Directed by: Kasha Jandáčková
Stavovské divadlo, Prague, written from the premiere on October 26, the next reruns on December 8, 13 and 14.