December 7, 2011

This "Cherry Orchard" Needs Some Weeding

 Repertory companies were once mainstays of the theater but, with rare exceptions like Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, they’re become rarities nowadays. It’s just too expensive for most theaters to maintain a resident crew of actors.  And it’s too much of a sacrifice for most actors to give up the chance to do more lucrative work elsewhere.
So it’s nice to see the same familiar faces turning up in Classic Stage Company productions with such constancy that they’ve come to constitute an unofficial rep company.  I just wish I had been as happy seeing what director Andrei Belgrader has done with them in the new production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard that opened on Sunday night.
The production is the final installment of the company’s “Chekhov Initiative,” which has presented the father of modern theater’s four major country-estate plays beginning with The Seagull in 2008. I've seen all four and I’ve been up and down about them (click here to read what I thought of The Seagull and here of Uncle Vanya and here of Three Sisters but I found this one to be the most disappointing.  Although the New York Times’ Ben Brantley and others have raved (click here to see some of those reviews).  
The Cherry Orchard, which famously ends with the sale of an aristocratic but improvident family’s country home and the sound of an ax chopping down their beloved orchard, is the most elegiac of Chekhov’s final quartet not only because it’s the last, completed the year before his premature death at 44, but because it echoes his boyhood experience when financial problems caused his own family to lose its home. 
But Chekhov being Chekhov, comedy sits right beside the family's tragedy in The Cherry Orchard (he told his wife that he was writing a “a four-act farce”) and as always, the challenge for a director is finding the right balance between the two.
Belgrader tips his production way towards the comedic and, despite a new flamboyantly colloquial translation (characters call one another “jerk”) by the actor John Christopher Jones, it also strives to be enigmatic.   
For the first time I can remember in all the years I’ve seen shows at CSC, curtains were drawn around the three-quarter playing area. It’s already a tight space with audience members sitting just inches away from the performers and the curtains were placed in a manner that made it difficult for people to get to their seats. The reveal when they were drawn hardly seemed worth the trouble. Santo Loquasto’s set is just a minimalist spin on the same old nursery room that always opens the play.
Things don’t pick up once the show gets under way either, although there’s a lot going on.  Costume designer Marco Piemontese has done up some characters in funny top hats and mismatched socks. A couple sport Brechtian-style whiteface makeup.  And several address their speeches directly to the audience.
One, Roberta Maxwell as the eccentric governess Charlotta, even breaks the fourth wall Pirandello-style and actually asks an audience member to move to another seat so that she can sit in his place and observe her fellow players. She also reaches into her pocket for a pickle, bites into it and then gives the remainder to the person sitting next to her. The man who got the leftover at the performance my friend Mary Anne and I attended was game and munched on the other end of the pickle. 
Mary Anne and I got caught up in a milder form of audience participation when a pillow was cut open and thrown up into the air: the feathers settled over those of us in the rows nearest the stage and stuck.  I was still pulling these unsolicited souvenirs off my clothes on the subway ride home.
All that funny business earns chuckles but I’m not sure what other purpose it serves. Shouldn’t the humor come from the characters and the situations they’ve created for themselves—falling in love with the wrong people, spending so much that they can’t hold on to the family patrimony, blindly ignoring the changing times—than from sticking on extraneous stuff?  
Now, this is the point in the post where I usually praise the actors (New York is chock full of 
so many awesome actors) regardless of what I’ve thought of the play.  The cast here is lead by Dianne Wiest and John Turturro, both formidable actors and CSC vets (click here to read a Q&A with him). 
They’re backed up by such CSC stalwarts as Maxwell and Alvin Epstein and CSC newcomer Daniel Davis (giving one of most subtle but effective performances). Plus there are a bunch of younger talents including Josh Hamilton, Juliet Rylance, Michael Urie (click here to read an interview with him) and the Waterston sisters, Elisabeth and Katherine.
Actors of this caliber are seldom bad and they aren’t here either. But none of them wowed me this time out.  Luckily, most are part of the CSC rep and so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll be back soon in other productions that will. 

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