A CurtainUp Review
The Cherry Orchard
By Elyse Sommer
It's the way Chekhov linked heartbreak with humor that makes this his masterpiece, a personal as well as socially relevant tragi-comedy. Were Chekhov still alive there'd be no need for him to chastise Andrei Belgrader for making him either a bore or a crybaby. It's definitely a comedy, but with it's tragedy mask still firmly in place.
It took some years from that Moscow premiere for directors to become more attuned to honoring Chekhov's intent: to write a human comedy that would make people laugh even as they were saddened to see lives shattered largely through the characters' own inertia, imprudent actions, and inability to listen and communicate with each other. Whatever the directorial approach, Chekhov has become almost as big a box office draw as Shakespeare (This is the 11th Cherry Orchard reviewed at Curtainup in its 14-year history and completes Classic Stage's presentation of Chekhov's four major works--The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters). The playwright's legions of fans never seem to tire of comparing the latest Ranevskaya, Lopakhin or Varya, or even the ensemble characters.
The Classic Stage's Cherry Orchard as directed by Belgrader has ratcheted up the comedy more than any I've seen. He has also heeded Chekhov's wish not to have his fourth act take more than about 22-minutes to play out. This is thus also the first production I can think of that clocks in at a brisk two hours (plus one intermission). Those two hours are refreshingly entertaining. John Christopher Jones has kept his translation accessible and kept excessive colloquialism in check. Diane Wiest and, even more so John Turturro, hold their own against any comparisons to previous Ranevskayas and Lopakhins. There are also many other examples of impressive acting from the ensemble.
Before I go into more detail, just in case you're not familiar with the plot, here it is boiled down to its essentials: The action, such as it is, begins with the return of Madame Ranevskaya to her estate after a five year stay in Paris with a lover who has deserted her for another woman. She discovers that you can't go home again when the interest on the mortgage is way past due and that survival demands that she heed the advice of prosperous new businessmen, a former serf, to let the estate's cherry orchard be chopped down and developed as homes for the middle class that is replacing her aristocratic set. As Chekhov himself is said to have summed it up: Act One -- they are wondering whether they will have to sell the cherry orchard; Act Two -- they are going to sell the cherry orchard; Act Three -- the cherry orchard is sold; Act Four -- what they do after the orchard is sold.
As you take your seat the CSC set is surrounded by billowing white curtains. Though the fabric looks sheer you can't see through until James Ingalls' lighting turns it into a see through affair, which is then are pulled back to reveal Santo Loquasto's a circular platform set which will serve three locations with just a few props: The estate's nursery for the first act; a bucolic outdoor setting near the railroad and a distance from the estate for the second; and a sort of great hall of the estate for the third act's party and the fourth act's departure.
The only actors on stage when the play opens are Lopakhin (John Turturro) and the maidservant Dunyasha (Elisabeth Waterston). Good as the ensemble is, Turtorro is the true star of this production. The role of the peasant who has prospered in the diminished world of the slave-holding aristocracy runs the risk of beomingg either too unsympathetc or, in the intense efforts to help his former masters avoid financial disaster, too sympathetic. But Turturro successfully captures all sides of the man as neither hero or villain. His prideful status as he welcomes his former masters in their estate as an equal and his lingering akwardness in that aristocratic milieu is fascinating to watch. Turturro lets us see the man's insensitive and vulgar ambition, even as he reveals his conflicted feelings -- his compassion for the family is tempered by impatience with their inertia and his lingering shame and anger at growing up as a peasant child working rather than playing in the lovely cherry orchard. Yet for all his almost lover-like feelings for Madame Ranevskaya, who was kinder to him as a boy than his coarse father, he can't control his glee when he announces himself as the new owner of the estate.
As the beautiful but aging and imprudent in matters of love and money matriarch, Diane Wiest exudes charm and makes it easy to understand Lopakhin's impatience with her impractical tomorrow is another day inaction. She brings the required elegance and good looks and nuance to the role. A creature of the moment, she can be thoughtlessly cruel, as in a scene with her dead son's former tutor Trofimov (a fine performance by Josh Hamilton). Ultimately, however, she poignantly exemplifies a woman ruled by her heart rather than her head. Wiest's performance has one weakness in that she too often fails to project so that even in this intimate theater a good deal of her dialogue gets lost.
This voice projection problem also applies to the two Waterston sisters (Elisabeth as Dunyasha and Katherine as Ranevskaya's daughter Anya). No such problems with the only practical member of the family, Madame's adopted daughter Varya (Juliet Rylance magnificent even when not saying a word), and her windbag of a brother Gaev (Daniel Davis). Ditto for the rest of the ensemble.
The actors called on to dish up the heaviest helpings of comedy are Roberta Maxwell as Charlotta the governess and Michael Urie as the guitar playing clownish Epikhodov. Maxwell, who can always be counted on for a superb performance, manages to bring off some of the director's somewhat too shticky fourth wall breaking business, such as handing an unfinished pickle to an audience member in the first row — at the performance I attended the man receiving the pickle added a bit of impromptu humor by actually eating it. Actually, Maxwell's interaction with that man and several others is not just a laugh getting device but a way to show her reacting to the fact that no one in the play pays attention to her.
Epikhodov with his two mismatched socks is quite a departure for Urie, best known for such TV gigs as Ugly Betty) and in Jon Marans' The Temperamentals. His character is reminiscent of Waiting For Godot's Lucky whose most ordinary act turns into a mishap and makes you understand why Chekhov's way with farcical moments inspired Beckett's many non-verbal scenes and Pinter's pauses.
The more subtle comic touches that also illustrate Chekhov's gift for potent silences come during the memorable proposal scene which here goes so far as to have Turturro actually kneel and having this hopelessly tongue-tied couple join hands. It nevertheless still goes nowhere. In the unsubtle department, Mr. Belgrader has (as did Sam Mendes in the Bridge Project production — review) allowed Dunyasha's second act scene with the socially ambitious servant Yasha (well-played by Slate Holmgren) to unzip Yasha's pants -- mercifully this is more hint than carried through act.
Despite being relatively bare bones rather than naturalistic, the set features some lovely and symbolically powerful stage pictures. The miniature nursery furniture suggests the scaled down circumstances of the children who grew up in it. The second act with its haystack and telegraph poles merges the present and the expanding but changing future.
There's nothing plain or bare bones about Marco Piemontese's gorgeous, personality defining costumes. When Ranevskaya and her entourage first appear they look as if they'd just steppd out of the famous Ascot scene in My Fair Lady.
No review of The Cherry Orchard would be complete with mentioning Fiers, the old servant who chose to stay with his masters when the serfs were freed, but who is left behind when they leave. Theater legend Alvin Epstein has played Fiers before in an Atlantic Theater production (review). Lucky for him —and us — he now finds himself in a more animated and interesting production.
For more about Anton Chekhov and links to plays by him that we've reviewed, see our Chekhov Backgounder
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