Monday, April 25, 2011

Theater review: ART finds some farce in 'The Cherry Orchard'

Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson and Tim Blough in The Cherry Orchard
By Barry Johnson

I laughed more than I thought I would at Artists Repertory Theatre's The Cherry Orchard, adapted by Richard Kramer and directed by Jon Kretzu. It was funny, both because of some broadly played characterizations and the original wit in Chekhov's script. Not that all is jolly on the formerly great Russian estate that is headed for the auction block -- and the subdivider. No, it's a sad production, too, which makes perfect sense.

The problem that theater folk face when dealing with The Cherry Orchard  is an exchange of telegrams between the playwright Anton Chekhov and its first director, Konstantine Stanislavsky. Here's how Chekhov biographer V.S. Pritchett describes them:
There was only one jarring note:  Stanislavsky had called the play "a truly great tragedy." Tartly, and fearing Stanislavsky's possessiveness, Chekhov replied that it was not even a drama -- "It is a farce."
Pritchett eventually agrees with Chekhov: "It is a farce because the people are a disordered chorus who have lost their gods and invent themselves." As Pritchett says earlier, no one in The Cherry Orchard really listens to anyone else.

Still, when we think of farces written around the same time as The Cherry Orchard, we think of something like Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest or Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear -- both of which seem far more absurd and funny to us today.  And I've never seen a production of The Cherry Orchard played that way, like an episode of Seinfeld.  Our thinking about Chekhov is more in line with Maxim Gorky's comments arising from a Chekhov short story:
"Chekhov has been reproached with having no philosophy. The reproach is absurd... Ever more often our ears can catch in his stories the melancholy but severe and deserved reproach that men do not know how to live, but at the same time, his sympathy with all men glows even brighter."
Kramer and Kretzu give us that Chekhov, but they give the farce element a nod, too, and it makes for a livelier evening as a result. The image that sticks with me is Vana O'Brien as the strange governess Charlotta doing magic tricks, stalking about with a rifle, and asking, "Who am I?"



The plot is swiftly recounted. The lady of the house Ruby Ranevsky (Linda Alper) come back home after five year in Paris, where she has apparently attempted to forget the death of her young son and fallen in love with a scoundrel. The estate is in deep trouble, despite the best efforts of her adopted daughter and estate manager Varya (Val Landrum). The businessman Lopakhin (Tim Blough), who grew up a serf on the estate, hovers nearby with a plan to save the estate at the expense of its famous cherry orchard, but he can't get anyone to listen -- or if they hear, they aren't acting on his advice.

Time goes by. The hangers-on at the estate grow restless with their own problems and obsessions. The auction of the estate grows nearer and is finally completed; the surprise buyer is... Lopakhin himself. And the household goes its separate ways, leaving Lopakhin with his head in his hands and the sound of the axes attacking the orchard in his ears.

The three keys to the play, from where I sat, were Linda Alper as Ruby, Michael Mendelson as her wearier-than-thou brother Leo and Blough's Lopakhin.  Ruby acts on her emotions and she is a very emotional person. Alper gives her the necessary quicksilver changes of emotional state (think spring weather in Portland) but modulates that with authentic warmth of character. We get a hint of the cost of this all on her, but we don't bog down in it. Alper's pitch-perfect reading allows Mendelson to explore the broader aspects of Leo's snobbery -- he always has Alper as a home base. Blough occasionally gets a little too vocal for my taste -- he's shouting to be heard amid the chaos of the household, I understand, but maybe he could make his impatience physical rather than vocal? I don't know. But that said, he makes Lopakhin's contradictory impulses clear, and he emerges far more sympathetically than is often the case.

Vana O'Brien, Amy Newman and Linda Alper in The Cherry Orchard
With these three characters in good hands, we can watch the amusing  or melancholy (sometimes both at the same time) antics of the "minor" characters, who are confused, in love with the wrong people, stuck in their routines or just generally addled.  We feel sorry for Varya, who's not going to win Lopakhin's heart and who has to manage the few remaining kopeks on the estate. On the other hand, we think maybe she's going to get to go on that tour of convents after all! Will the tutor Trofimov (Blake Lowell), who believes in work but does very little of it, get to act on his philosophy? We hope so. We suspect the pretty daughter Anya (Amy Newman) will land on her feet, yes? And the penurious and narcoleptic Pischik (Todd Van Voris) already has, thanks to a discovery of mineral wealth on his estate.

But we're far less certain about the estate's staff -- the aged Firs (Tobias Andersen, whose ear for Leo is exactly right), the maid Dunyasha (Victoria Blake) with a crush on the valet Yasha (Colton Ruscheinsky) that isn't returned, the wild Charlotta and the bumbling Yepidikoff (Andy Lee-Hillstrom) with his squeaky boot. We fear his love for Dunyasha will never be returned, though we suspect a cobbler might help.

These are "types" in a way -- though maybe Chekhov himself confirmed them as types -- and Kramer and Kretzu give the actors the freedom to play them as types. The melancholy? Well, Kramer supplies it with two ghosts -- the lost son and the Woman in White wander through from time to time, reminding us lives past. Are they necessary? I'm not sure. And I'm not really clear why exactly a character playing Chekhov pops up from time to time, often to feed Firs a line. In a way, he's a ghost, too -- the real Chekhov died a couple of months after the play was produced.

Daniel Meeker's set manages to give us a fully developed cherry orchard, an "outside" playing area, a pool and the inside of an estate with a few deft moves and props -- and looked beautiful, too.

But we are getting carried away with the parts of the production. I exchanged messages about the production with Cate Garrison, who loves her Chekhov. Here's part of what she wrote:
This was "cherry essence," as I think I said on my Facebook page, in that it was concentrated, rich, tangy and sharp (in both the senses of "intelligent" and of extremely witty -- it's so frequent nowadays for directors to forget that Chekhov was very very funny, and, instead, get bogged down in words, words words and a misbegotten -- in my opinion -- heaviness and misplaced reverence -- as so often happens, too, with Shakespeare).
I think that's about right!

Personally, I don't feel so sad about the collapse of the estate -- at the end, everyone's liberated from this place, from the past, free to prosper or suffer in new ways. Even Lopakhin, who is left empty-handed, though he owns the land.  Will Uncle Leo make a success of his new bank job? That would be a great comic sequel. And maybe that's why Chekhov thought the play was funny: He wasn't nostalgic the way Stanislavsky was and sending these oddballs out into the world amused him.


NOTES:

The play is almost two hours -- without intermission. It move quickly, but some preparations may be in order.

Cate Garrison was the theater critic for Willamette Week for many years.

Photo by Owen Carey for Artists Repertory Theatre.

The Oregonian's Marty Hughley reviews the play at length, detecting an underlying emotional realism in the text and the production.

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