Friday, January 12, 2007

Into the woods

Lebow, Rothenberg, Burton, Hudnut and Latessa ponder The Cherry Orchard.

Comedy and tragedy are like two sides of the same ruble; which one you see depends on your perspective. Only the perspectives are so legion, and so shifting, in Chekhov’s last masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard – now in a richly appointed production at the Huntington Theatre - that even defining the great play’s tone has remained elusive. Its central event (the destruction of that famed orchard) is so poignant that the play’s original director, Stanislavski, directed its premiere as tragedy, straight up. This only appalled the dying Chekhov, however, who insisted his swan song was “a comedy – even in places a farce!”

The debate continues – although because of it, sometimes we can't see the Orchard for the trees. And ironically enough, the opposing teams have switched sides: now it’s the educated middlebrow audience that has decided the show’s a comedy, and the highbrow one that longs to have its melancholy restored. The argument won’t be settled at the Huntington, however, where director Nicholas Martin takes a stab at balancing the play on a knife’s edge between the two forms. At first, you may feel he's taken the author's hint, and has framed the play as farce – or even sitcom - populated by denizens of the New York Theatre of the Absurd, who hit all the punch lines in Richard Nelson’s punchy new translation. But as the crisis for the Ranevskaya family deepens, so does Martin’s direction; the famous finale, with the house boarded up, the faithful retainer dying inside, and the echo of that relentless axe in the distance, is a harrowing coda – and as powerful as that of any production of The Cherry Orchard I’ve seen.

What’s curious is that Martin achieves this depth without the star performance the production promises: in the role of Ranevskaya, the lovely Kate Burton (left, with Mark Blum) shines like the star she is, but sometimes seems almost as wooden as her orchard. Martin guides this Chekhov veteran through the play’s paces well enough, but her cheery sense of denial between climaxes is just too sturdy to hold our interest – or make her ruined romantic history plausible.

For history is what she’s got: The Cherry Orchard opens with Ranevskaya dragging her baggage - in both senses of the term - back to the ancestral plot. We slowly learn (perhaps a bit too baldly here) that years before, she fled the horror of her son’s drowning; her life since then has been a series of failed affairs on the Continent, while the family ran through its money - in fact, her return coincides with the planned auction of the estate.

But there’s one possible out – as suggested by the blunt businessman Lopakin, the family can save its skin, if not its soul, by selling its orchard to summer tenants. This would mean chopping down their beloved trees, however, and to the noble Ranevskaya and her brother Gaev, that prospect is unthinkable; and so they dither and dally until the fatal day. In an unexpected twist, however, the estate is sold to none other than Lopakin – who grew up as one of their serfs (or rather slaves) – and thus in a single stroke Chekhov neatly sums up the fall of the gentry and the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Will Lebow tries to talk sense into Kate Burton.
(Production photos by T. Charles Erickson.)

That would be quite enough theme for many a play, but it’s only a taste of this particular Cherry; Chekhov’s last work is a dense lattice of his political, philosophical, and moral concerns, conveyed through meandering conversation, occasional bursts of burlesque, and a steady chorus of non sequiturs – and it’s to Martin’s immense credit (and his cast’s) that this production connects a dizzying number of these disparate dots. The best work comes from the supporting cast, and since every role in Chekhov is a little world of interpretive possibility, I’ll give most of these individual nods. There’s brilliant (if at times broad) work from the reliable Jeremiah Kissel as the happy sponge Pishchik; Kissel is probably saddled with the highest number of non sequiturs in the show, and he pulls off every one. There’s equally skilled work from Joyce Van Patten as the weirdly sour hausfrau Charlotta, and a truly marvelous turn by Dick Latessa as Firs (his isn’t just the best Firs I’ve seen, it’s one of the best Chekhov performances I’ve seen). As the “perpetual student” Trofimov, Enver Gjokaj is suitably intense, if somewhat superficial - he's helped immeasurably by his makeup (which appropriately enough, makes him look first like Chekhov, then like Trotsky).

As we move up the cast list, alas, the performances grow less satisfying. Gene Farber isn’t nearly horny enough as Yasha, while Jessica Dickey tries hard - perhaps too hard - but lacks the natural crassness of Dunyasha. As the hapless Yephikhodov, or “Disasters by the Dozen,” Jeremy Beck takes some truly acrobatic spills - but the character is not merely comic relief, and Beck is too much the golden boy to evoke his crestfallen despair. A similar problem plagues Mark Blum’s spoiled Gaev – true, the man's nobility is cut with vanity, but he's not merely a silly sybarite, however skillfully Blum plays him (the inability of Burton and Blum to evoke their characters' fragile, stained nobility may be what holds back the first acts of the play). And as Anya, Ranevskaya’s daughter, BU sophomore Jessica Rothenberg is clearly out of her depth – she’s lovely in just the right way, but hasn’t begun to tap her character’s anxious sensitivity.

Of the central family, only Sarah Hudnut scores as Varya, the adopted daughter – although she seems more a comedienne than an actress at first, and lacks the bitter twist we associate with the role; by the finale, however, Hudnut is channeling the character’s pain so completely that she’s practically peerless. Luckily, she’s playing against the most accomplished major performance in the production – Will LeBow’s Lopakin. LeBow is an odd choice for this boorish up-and-comer, who readily admits he’s “a pig”; this actor’s specialty is the refined, aging eccentric (in fact, in terms of what we expect from their characters, LeBow and Burton are precisely reversed in presence). But LeBow makes it work (as he always does) by connecting with Lopakin’s low self-esteem as his driving force, and by pushing his moment of triumph into true ferocity.

So the cast is as mottled as the dying light (left) in Chekhov’s forest – but the production is pulled together through the perceptive depth of Martin’s direction and the remarkable work of his design team. Scenic designer Ralph Funicello’s indoor/outdoor set subtly links these aristocrats to their land (his parting curtains, on which the cherry orchard is projected, accomplishes this with particular beauty, and elegantly solves the problem of whether or not to reveal the symbolic grove), while Donald Holder’s lighting design evokes about as many lush, crepuscular shades of twilight as you can imagine (I’ll never forget the final moments of Act II, with its trees trailing into the gloom like blue tapers). And sound designer Drew Levy must be commended for pulling off the most difficult sound cue in all Chekhov – the famous, semi-mystical “distant breaking string” which punctuates Acts II and IV.

I’ve never, in fact, seen this moment brought off as successfully as in Martin’s production. This is Chekhov at his most allusive (and elusive) – a broken string echoes in the distance, a violent tramp disturbs the family like some harbinger of the social id, and the sun slowly begins to set. At the Huntington, a sense of portent hangs in the air – we feel poignantly the loss of higher purpose that to Firs gave his life meaning, and which can never be replaced by the busy optimism of the bourgeoisie. The same sense of loss surfaces with a vengeance at the play’s finish, as Martin doesn’t just lock up the house but boards it up, and we lie in darkness with the old retainer, listening helplessly as somewhere the axes descend on the cherry orchard. At moments like this, realized on the stage rather than the page, the intellectual pretense that the play is comedy falls as quickly as these trees (and Martin knows it). This production isn’t perfect, but it’s the closest we may come to mature Chekhov in this town for many a year.

The cast takes its bow on opening night.

No comments:

Post a Comment