Ah, hubris, c'est moi! Was it only on Saturday that I wrote of the Boston Art Theatre's Uncle Vanya, "Better you should try to convey Chekhov's century-old insights than re-enact the postmodern detritus of the 70's and 80's"? Yes, it was. But the Fates, I'm afraid, had a critical smackdown in store for me, via the Nora Theatre's traditional production of The Cherry Orchard (through February 1 at the Central Square Theatre), which, if anything, is even weaker than the Boston Art Theatre's pseudo-avant Vanya. Only the artistes at Boston Art at least have somewhere to hide - they can always pretend that only a stick-in-the-mud wouldn't like their disco ball, or their rock-and-roll interludes. The Nora, however, is stuck in a different way: when you attempt a masterpiece on terms that everybody understands, then everybody knows it when you . . . well, anyway. Sigh. Maybe I should have written, "If you don't have the resources to do Chekhov, better you should not do him at all!"
Although it would seem the Nora does have those resources - there are plenty of talented local actors in this cast (Annette Miller and Ken Baltin, with Michael Balcanoff and William Young, at left), and they're being directed by Daniel Gidron, who teaches at UMass. Perhaps the show's under-rehearsed, or maybe Gidron and his translator, George Malko, have some rather odd ideas about the play (more on that later), but whatever the reason, things don't gel until well into the third act, and until then most of the cast is either coasting on broad versions of personae from earlier shows (Miller, Baltin, Balcanoff, Young), half-heartedly going through the motions (Daniel Berger-Jones, Elise Audrey Manning), or just don't know what they're doing (Darcy Fowler). There are two surprisingly solid minor performances - Mark Peckham's Pishchik, and Fred Robbins's Drifter - which with their internal authority and technical control seem to have drifted in from some other production. Which simply goes to show you that some actors can always find their way home in the dark.
So what went wrong? My gut is the blame is mostly Gidron's, if only because he's at the intersection of weak acting, an eccentric translation, and poor design. There are also hints that he's trying to force the play toward farce, which is what many academics insist it is (drawing from Chekhov's own outraged response to the "tragic" stylizations of Stanislavski). Now I'm not going to argue the play should never be funny - there's even a whole character designed (largely) as comic relief; and certainly it should never be played as "high tragedy." But I also have to point out, based simply on the experience of a lifetime of play-going and maybe a dozen productions of The Cherry Orchard, that the farcical approach tends to fall flat - particularly in the devastating last act. And I'm getting a little tired of professors telling me, based on "close readings" of the text, that the universal audience response to this play is somehow wrong. If they got out of the classroom and into the theatre more often, they'd change their tune (then again, maybe not). People cry at the climax of great productions of The Cherry Orchard for good reason - even though, yes, they understand the absurdity of its flawed characters; indeed, perhaps that makes them cry all the more.
Worse still, consciously farcical mechanics tend to look crass in late Chekhov - indeed, almost anything too-directly stated looks crass in late Chekhov - and this production makes a few such blunders; at one point Yasha actually screws Dunyasha on stage (I suppose so we can say "Dunyasha has done Yasha") - a crude bit of business that the actors seem as dismayed by as the audience. (This brought back terrible memories of the moment Arkadina suddenly showed her tits in the ART Seagull from the early 90's.) Meanwhile other rather important bits of business have gone missing (what happened to Charlotta's rifle, which should mirror Yepihodov's pistol?). And then there's the weird fact that the translation and the physical production are at cross-purposes. The performance style intermittently suggests modernist farce (as does the truly ugly set design) but the new translation is nevertheless flowery and antique. Meanwhile the costumes and props just look under-developed, while the lighting is precisely the wrong tint (a warm amber, even when everyone's talking about how cold it is). And the sound effects - where to begin? The Cherry Orchard includes two of the most famous sound cues in all theatre: the strange "sound of a string breaking in the distance" that's supposed to "fade sadly away" (here it sounds like somebody banging a gong), and the horrifying echo of axes falling on the eponymous, symbolic orchard (which here sounds like steam rapping in a pipe; at first I thought someone in the wings was knocking on the stage door).
Okay, enough. To be fair, things do move uphill as the show goes on. The play's first two acts depend on atmosphere, and a careful mosaic of implied theme and critique; Gidron and company blow that completely. But in the third act, when the estate is finally sold, and the actors have some action to play, they do get some traction, and things look up. Baltin hits some interesting, almost infantile notes in his announcement that he's bought the estate, and Mara Sidmore's bitter intensity as Varya pays off in her final disappointments. As Ranevskaya, Annette Miller has some line trouble, and comes off as too broadly needy in the opening scenes - and she never suggests the haunted quality the character should have from her entrance (those interested in a short course in how to play this woman should check out Charlotte Rampling in the Kakogiannis film version, which is out on DVD); but her style better matches the larger-than-life blows she absorbs in the later acts, and she's affecting in the finale.
Nevertheless, this only amounts to a general improvement to "passable." Perhaps, of course, the production could still slowly come together; as my friend said as we left the theatre, "Not enough money, not enough time." That's clearly part of the equation. Still, with even less money the kids in Vanya actually pulled off some better - and certainly more internalized - acting. Of course, those with little or no experience of The Cherry Orchard may find, as is often the case with great plays by great playwrights, that enough of the content comes over to make the experience worthwhile; on the other hand, one wonders why the Nora would attempt this classic in the shadow of Nicholas Martin's recent, masterful version at the Huntington (which, true, also suffered from a weak lead performance). Certainly the production limns no new insights into the question of whether the play is a tragedy or a farce. Even though there were times when I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.