If the title of Eoghan Quinn’s surreal new comedy doesn’t recall for you Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play, The Cherry Orchard, don’t despair. Like the interrogator in its opening scene, whose prisoner makes reference to a Shakespeare tragedy, you’ll expect to be amused: “I don’t know King Lear. Is it a comedy”?
In Collapsing Horse and Project Arts Centre’s jaunty co-production, the hostage is Maddy (represented by a puppet, gently voiced by Eleanor Methven), the matriarch of a country estate in decline. Yes, there’s parallel with Chekhov’s play but this being Collapsing Horse – an arch troupe that spins puppetry, music and drama into adventurous theatre – there is a magical flourish: the estate once operated as a water orchard, though it’s sadly faded since the heyday of its ’78 vintage.
Maddy’s children, Noelle (Rachel Gleeson) and Addison (Peter Corboy), quickly hire a detective to find her. An investor’s meeting is fast approaching and Noelle has her eyes fixed on gentrifying the historic water orchard into another brainless brunch-spot. By the time we meet Bee (Breffni Holohan), a con artist forced into her profession by a hellish national health service, there are enough political targets to throw a dart while blindfolded.
This feels like new ground for directors Quinn and Dan Colley, who mingle the contemporary displays of Jack Phelan’s roguish audio-visuals with the olden fleur-de-lis interiors of Sarah Bacon’s set, all for the mischief of postmodern pastiche. John Doran’s cynical detective (his name is Grief) does some Stanislavski-style method acting. Soliloquies get titles to be projected onstage. By speaking their true feelings aloud, can these colourful characters turn into something more real?
In truth, Quinn’s script chases bizarre juxtapositions (“I know what you mean. My father was trampled by a horse”) and non-sequiturs that are genius but so wild, it makes any characterisation feels brittle. The plot insists on darker depths but nobody can budge from their single-note. Even Gleeson, bright with energy, can’t convince us that Noelle is more serious than nutty.
As the plot unfurls, its resolutions remain flabbergasting and frustratingly ambiguous, revealing a neurotic play that can’t transform. For Collapsing Horse and Chekhov, change means two different things: one transfigures ordinary things into something magical, the other writes about the elegiac passing of time. It’s the difference between life and death.
The Water Orchard is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until July 29th. For more details, click here.