Chekhov made me laugh. Said no one. Ever.
But last night, I think it is pretty fair to say, I saw something unexpected. And felt something unexpected.
I might be a little bit more on the jaded side than other people, but seeing a troupe of drag queens turn Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard into a lip-synch/live/theatrical-dance event just, well, it just surprised me in a lot of really good ways. And at certain times, it made me laugh, but along not at.
There are a lot of things that have fallen out of fashion lately. Russia is one of them. And "let's re-read one of Chekhov's works for fun" said no one recently.
But the themes in The Cherry Orchard: of a changing world, a changing economy and the futility of the aristocratic class, (you know, the old 1%), in trying to hold onto their status is something that still resonates.
I don't often get out to watch drag. When it's done well, I really enjoy it, but not necessarily because of the built in campness. It's the way that it can really be a brilliant character study when it's done well that can make it special. Especially as it's usually a threadbare thing - knocked together on the tiniest of budgets, with handmade costumes and let's just say some pretty novel types of staging.
Nina's Drag Queens are a Milan based troupe. They've got a number of shows on the go around the country here.
For this show, Nina's Drag Queens incorporate some of the classic drag aesthetics into their show, but take it to the next natural level, theatrically through some pretty inspired staging.
The stage for Il Giardino delle Ciliegi - the Italian translation for The Cherry Orchard - was stark in every sense of the word. Just a few dozen transparent domestic objects hanging from the ceiling- cutlery, ornaments that kind of thing, treated in a way that made them seem as if they were relics from Narnia, dripping in white. That minimalist design was really important, because it left room for the exaggeration needed to freshly bring the story to life through caricature and by way of the drama brought by the choreography and musical choices.
While I was watching it I was kind of mesmerized by the song choices: nearly all Italian pop classics by national and gay icons, (hello Mina), with the exception of the inspired inclusion of Bjork's Uberballad and a Beatles classic - sung in Russian.
Bringing someone like Chekhov to life in that way makes classic literature more approachable and powerful than ever. There's something about how complementary music and literature are together. Each brings something else to the other's party.
I think it's pretty safe to say that the mix of high and low art was really well thought out. And how that old distinction between high and low art is just something that we shouldn't be so quick to make anymore. Because there's such an awareness of certain pieces that the only way to bring something new to them is to bring something else entirely to the work.
Beyond the music which forms the backbone of the show, I was really impressed by how well the actors managed to make caricatures and humanize the characters in the play at the same time. You just really got the sense of the characters even through their drag armor.
It was a really interesting take on things and there were times when I was thinking about the old Kabuki theatre - about how female impersonation on stage was once upon a time just the expected thing in some theatres in the world. How things move in and out of our sight and our thoughts.
I know. When was the last time you had to put up with someone talking about kabuki actors and cheap philosophy? I'm like the 1% that thinks about that kind of stuff. Sorry. Make it all go away by checking out Nina's Drag Queens if they come your way, or if not, on youtube. You might just see something you didn't expect to. And get thinking about something you hadn't really considered before (or for a long time).
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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