The Coffee Trees
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
September 28, 2007
An essential part of Resonance Ensemble's mission is presenting classic works paired with plays that are inspired by them. The contemporary plays in past years have been quite strong, usually having something to say, either in response to the original work or in its own context. Unfortunately that is not the case for the disappointing The Coffee Trees, a new play by Arthur Giron inspired by Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. It is so hobbled by setting up its connections to Chekhov, that as a play it never takes off. The perfunctory direction does not help matters at all.
Set in Guatemala, The Coffee Trees tells the story of the Escalante family and the return of their beloved matriarch, Elena, from a self-imposed European exile. She left the country after the death of her son, who was kidnapped by rebel guerillas. While abroad, Elena takes under her wing an aging ex-soccer star named Manny as her surrogate son and "nanny" to her youngest daughter Anita. Elena then brings him home as prospective husband for her eldest daughter, Barbara. Barbara, having been left to run the coffee farm with only the help of her alcoholic uncle Antonio, is seemingly poised to marry Lopez. He is a local Indian with whom she was raised and who has now become powerful through connection with the local evangelicals. There is also the aging schoolmaster, recently released from prison, who wants to marry the loyal servant Bombi; as well as visits from wounded guerillas culminating in a soccer game played across political and religious beliefs.
Within this collection of types, there is the essence of something interesting despite the piece being oddly weighted towards establishing its connection to The Cherry Orchard at the expense of getting the story going. The production is helped in no small part by a largely solid cast, whose committed character work adds nuance to an otherwise somewhat aimless production. Especially fine are the Antonio of Chris Ceraso and Teddy Cañez's Lopez.
The first half of the play is very focused on establishing its links to Chekhov and the production gives almost no attention to the oddities of action within the play. Then midway through the second act, the absurdity within the piece is suddenly flaunted. In the first act, gradually the entire family crawls under a blanket with the collapsed, apparently passed-out soccer star and their matriarch for comfort. It is a very silly moment and could be a clearer flag to the foolishness to follow if it weren't directed to be so mild and realistic. This low-key realism makes it harder to handle when director Marion Castleberry switches the tone well into the second act.
Initially, Barbara's work as a Catholic catechism teacher is played seriously and she is treated with reverence. Then in the second act she suddenly decides to perform a marriage over two folks (who seem to have little reaction to this decision being made for them). Now, unless there is an utter dearth of priests (doubtful in a Latin American location), that is quite a jump in behavior. Yet not only does she go there, but Dona Elena steps in as some sort of Mother Earth figure to perform an ersatz wedding of all of them—and there has been no preparation for any of this mayhem prior.
When in the second act the piece begins to play with being mock-Chekhovian, seeming to push the limits of behavior and high ideals, at last it seems the piece is doing something on its own, but it has been such a long time coming, it is hard to be enthused. This lack of a consistent take on the material does nothing to help the pace of The Coffee Trees, which runs a reasonable two and a half hours but feels longer. There is an utter lack of need which plays out as inertia.
It is all a bit like the sky floating above the clean, realistic set by Dustin O'Neill. It lingers in the distance, an odd but engaging animated scene that starts by portraying a volcano and then slips into a night sky. It is a bit quirky and could be enchanting if it were more easily seen or weren't so entirely ignored by the staging. It seems to be suffering the same fate as the play.