Monday, April 16, 2012

“The Cherry Orchard” - An Interesting Take on a Classic

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Anton Chekhov called his play The Cherry Orchard "a comedy", though it's usually been presented with heavily dramatic overtones. The Classic Stage Company's recent production of the work however took deliberate aim at the lighter side when telling this story of denial, changing times, class differences and broken hearts.

In early twentieth century Russia, matriarch Ranevskaya (Dianne Wiest) is returning to the family country estate after a five-year absence. Accompanying Ranevskaya is her daughter Anya (Katherine Waterston) and brother Gaev (Daniel Davis). While the returnees are welcomed quite warmly by Ranevskaya's adopted daughter Varya (Juliet Rylance), the manager of the estate, and Lopakhin (John Turturro), a local businessman, all is not well. Ranevskaya has just gotten out of a bad relationship with a man who went through most of her assets, and who now sends her daily telegrams imploring her to take him back. More importantly, she is seemingly incapable of curbing her extravagant spending habits, no matter how she tries to stop herself. Upon her return home she is informed that the estate is heavily in debt and if the family cannot come up a large amount of money, the entire property, which includes a magnificent cherry orchard, will be sold at auction.

As these events play out over the several summer weeks, other elements are introduced, most of them having to do with love and its proximity between the emotions of need and loneliness. It's these feelings which cause Ranevskaya to continually consider going back to a damaged relationship. There's also Epikhodov (Michael Urie), a lovable klutz who always seems to be doing the wrong thing and who's in love with the servant girl Dunyasha (Elisabeth Waterston). Dunyasha initially returns his advances, but when given a taste of possible alternatives, she begins to question that initial decision. Love, or the lack of it, also flourishes between Anya and Trofimov (Josh Hamilton), a professional student who feels people should be above such matters and instead focus on the problems of the world. As for Varya, she loves Lopakhin dearly and would marry him in an instant if only he asked.

Director Andrei Belgrader should be commended for guiding the actors through the proceedings with a light touch, and allowing both the humor and pathos of the various situations to come through. In a scene which could very easily be played as drama, Lopakhin comically bursts a gasket as he tries to convince Ranevskaya and Gaev to sell the cherry orchard, literally pummeling the ground in frustration as the two seem to be blissfully unaware of the direness of the situation. Other amusing moments include Gaev and his relationship with a bookcase, and Urie as the ever-hapless Epikhodov, who keeps getting into one mishap after another.

However, there is no denying the deeper underlying issues in the story, with Wiest becoming a sort of emotional chameleon throughout. Putting on an oblivious attitude when she chooses, while at other times dispensing harsh common sense to her daughters regarding their relationships. Wiest also has a tremendous stage presence, commanding the audience's attention whenever she appears and allowing those watching to see the tremendous loneliness Ranevskaya carries. So much so she is willing to settle for less than she deserves.

Turturro works well as the rather serious Lopakhin, never forgetting his peasant roots and knowing that, despite all he has accomplished, he will always be looked down on by certain people, being in a lower class than they. His delight at a successful business deal leads to a powerful yet almost malicious dance of victory and triumph.

Not faring as well is Hamilton, coming across as a would-be-radical giving lip service to his principles rather than actually having passion for what he proclaims. Elisabeth and Katherine Waterston are good as Epikhodov and Dunyasha, but they also feel more than a bit interchangeable here. A bit ironic as they both have the chance to overshadow their various male counterparts if given the opportunity. Rylance however does great job as the sister with a terminal case of unrequited love, a rather common theme in Chekhov's works; as is the idea of being responsible for one's own actions. Alvin Epstein is fine as the aging manservant Fiers, a relic of the estate's glory days and perhaps the ultimate survivor. Jan Maxwell has a few scene-stealing moments as Carlotta, another of the hired help, and Slate Holmgren does a delicious and smarmy turn as Yasha, a servant always looking to better his situation on the backs of others, usually women.

The text has been edited somewhat, the show clocking in at a quick two hours, fifteen minutes. Yet due to this streamlining, some of the characters don't get as much exposure as they need. This includes Yasha and his relationship with Dunyasha, as well as the interplay between Anya and Trofimov.

This particular production is staged quite strongly in the intimate venue of CSC, director Belgrader and the various performers placing the action literally right in front of the audience. Santo Loquasto's sets work especially well, ranging from an estate with a quiet quality of faded glory, to the wide-open feeling of the grounds outside. Costumes by Marco Piemontese are also quite good, especially the odd assortment of garments Urie wears, which include different colored and ill-fitting socks.

The Cherry Orchard remains a classic tale of a family in crisis, with the changing times threatening to pull them apart. This was not the best production of the play in recent memory, but there was still much to enjoy.

The Cherry Orchard
Featuring: John Turturro (Lopakhin), Elisabeth Waterston (Dunyasha), Michael Urie (Epikhodov), Katherine Waterston (Anya), Dianne Wiest (Ranevskaya), Juliet Rylance (Varya), Daniel Davis (Gaev), Roberta Maxwell (Carlotta), Ken Cheeseman (Pischik), Slate Holmgren (Yasha), Alvin Epstein (Fiers), Josh Hamilton (Trofimov), Michael Wieser (Station-Master/Servant), Ben Diskant (Post-office Clerk/Servant)

Written by Anton Chekhov
Translated by John Christopher Jones
Choreographed by Orlando Pabotoy
Directed by Andrei Belgrader
Scenic Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Marco Piemontese
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Original Music and Sound Design: Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery
Hair Design: Paul Huntley
General Manager: Jeff Griffin
Production Stage Manager: Joanne E. McInerney
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Assistant Stage Manager: Jamie Hill

Classic Stage Company

136 East 13th Street
Closed: January 8, 2012

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