Monday, December 05, 2011

THEATER: The Cherry Orchard

If you're a profound optimist like Pischik (Ken Cheeseman), the sort of man who rests so easy in the knowledge that everything will somehow work itself out that he's practically a narcoleptic, you'll likely find Classic Stage Company's latest revival of The Cherry Orchard to be, in his uninformed words, "Amazing, amazing." Look at the pretty, star-studded cast! Hear the clean, accessible translation of John Christopher Jones! There's little room, however, for optimism in Chekhov, and while Pischik manages to stumble into a quiet sort of success, Andrei Belgrader (who similarly under-directed Endgame several years ago at BAM, also with John Turturro and Alvin Epstein) simply stumbles, time and time again.

For a drama that's so much about the characters -- the plot revolves around a single action, the upcoming sale of the family's debt-ridden estate -- Belgrader largely ignores them, leaving them to their own devices, and in the case of Turturro, their own bad habits. Instead, he puts up a showy veil around the three-sided stage; has Santo Loquasto wash out the circular set in eye-straining white that belies the manor's former opulence (and looks particularly bad in the "outdoor" second act); and, in an act of token minimalism, leaves only the furniture directly mentioned in the script -- a dresser here, a trunk and a mirror there. These scenic choices clash thematically with the object-centered theme of the play, but for real evidence that Belgrader doesn't really know what he's doing, one need only watch as Charlotta (Roberta Maxwell) cheerily breaks the fourth wall, chatting up and dancing with members of the audience -- and not just in the third act's party scene, which features a variety of divertissments intended to heighten the tension felt by Ranevskaya (Dianne Wiest), as she awaits the results of the auction of her family home -- but during the relatively private second act, too.

The production's clumsier than Epikhodov, which is ironic, since the cast is by and large the one good thing here. I suspect it's largely to do with the experience of these stage and screen veterans, who know how to infuse their characters with more than the seemingly scant directions of Belgrader. In the particular example of Epikhodov, Michael Urie comes in already having mastered pratfalls, so he's able to concentrate on the otherwise undeveloped nuances of his scenes with the self-defined "fragile flower" Dunyasha (Elisabeth Waterston), and his new bad-boy rival, the boorish footman Yasha (Slate Holmgren). The same can be said, however, of Josh Hamliton, who makes the "perpetual student" Trofimov feel like more than Chekhov's intellectual interjection, particularly in the half-witted romantic effect he has on Ranevskaya's naive daughter, Anya (Katherine Waterston).

This is clearest most of all, however, with Ms. Wiest, who plays more than a variation on her usual type. At the play's opening, she is giddier and younger than anyone else, spinning through her old nursery with the sort of delusion that comes from a bad case of nostalgia; by the middle of the play, her mercurial nature comes across more as an informed fatalism -- the sort of woman who knows her charity and lack of money-sense is destructive, but cannot stop; and by the end, she's stooped over with the age and weight of her poor decisions. It's the polar opposite of the over-the-top incredulity that John Turturro brings to the other central role, that of Lopakhin, the hard-working former servant who has now earned enough so as to purchase the very cherry orchard where his parents were once slaves. In some sense, this is fine: Lopakhin is not a subtle man. On the other, Turturro reduces him -- particularly during his big third-act monologue -- to a man of all-business, with the conflicting notes of humility, relief, sorrow wrapped up entirely by one of his booming, over-the-top rants. At the start of the show, Turturro notes that "I've got money, but if you look at me, I'm still a peasant," but hints of the secret shame he feels at this -- one of the key reasons for Trofimov to be in this play, as a means of cultured contrast -- are never visible.

This is, again, where Belgrader's direction -- or lack thereof -- shows; he's too content to let the actors do their thing, with little regard for how those elements all fit together. He may be blessed with talented actors like Daniel Davis, but he doesn't go the extra mile with them: he settles for Davis's wistful and nuanced portrayal of Ranevskaya's brother, Gaev, without pushing for the sublime horror that can be shown by this semi-senile character. The same can be said for Fiers: here's a servant so old and stalwart that he is literally forgotten about at the end of the play, but while Alvin Epstein plays him well, he's used mainly for comic relief, which makes his final lines sit poorly with the rest of the production.

Ultimately, this Cherry Orchard suffers from the same abundance of riches as the orchard within the show: bright and once-majestic, these talents ultimately go to pot, mismanaged as they are.


Seth Christenfeld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seth Christenfeld said...

Here I am, having presumed that the point of casting both Waterston sisters was to...y'know, HAVE THEM PLAY SISTERS.

Aaron Riccio said...

Seth, I'm confused as to the point you're making here. Yes, these are Sam Waterston's children (as I said earlier, it's "star-studded"), but there's no way for blood sisters to play blood sisters in this show -- I'm fairly sure that Varya is adopted. But I agree that the way they were cast only emphasizes the semi-randomness of much of the direction.

Did you enjoy the show?

Seth Christenfeld said...

I had no memory of Varya being adopted when I wrote the comment, although Wikipedia mentions it, also. So I guess I just forgot.

I haven't seen it and don't plan on seeing it--I dislike Chekov in general and hate The Cherry Orchard in particular.

Aaron Riccio said...

Fair enough, Seth; I actually think Chekhov's a talented writer, given a casual enough translation (nothing kills his work faster than overly poetic ordinary people), and I actually think the Cherry Orchard's a fine work about the clashes between values, classes, and personalities, but considering how much the direction (or lack thereof) glossed over these nuances, I can't complain with your choice to avoid this one.

Seth Christenfeld said...

I had to suffer through a terrible class a few years ago that was heavily based around The Cherry Orchard; I already didn't like it, but that killed any and all interest in ever seeing it again, ever. (Best thing I got out of it was a hearty laugh at the line that ended Act II of Intelligent Homosexual last year.)

That said, I don't completely hate Uncle Vanya (I once tried to write a musical version of it, but the less said about that the better), and I'm looking forward to the announced Baker/Gold/Birney version at Soho Rep in the spring.

Aaron Riccio said...

I cannot stress enough how excited I am for the Baker/Gold/Birney version. I don't think I've seen any of them with a major misstep yet, and I'm thrilled that Baker is taking up residency with Signature Theater, a move that guarantees we'll get to see even more of her work over the next several years.

Seth Christenfeld said...

On that, sir, we agree.