October 22, 2016

"The Cherry Orchard" is Too Arid

Actors, directors, playwrights and producers are now eager for ways to make theater more inclusive (which is a good thing) but the rules for how to do that are still being worked out. Which may explain how a well-intentioned production like the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of The Cherry Orchard can go so awry.

This final play that Anton Chekhov wrote before his death in 1904 at the premature age of 44 centers on an aristocratic Russian family that has become so feckless that it loses its ancestral home, including the beloved orchard, to the son of one of the serf's who once worked their land.

The guiding impulse behind the Roundabout's new reinterpretation appears to have been a desire to draw a parallel between the descendants of the Russian serfs during Chekhov's time and the descendants of American slaves during our own. Four of the eight main male roles in this production are played by black actors. (Click here to read about the impetus for this approach.)

But instead of letting this casting speak for itself, Stephen Karam, the recent and deserved Tony award winner for The Humans who did the adaptation; and Simon Godwin, the celebrated young British director who's staged it, trivialize the analogy. 

These characters—and only they—high-five one another and utter contemporary catchphrases like "Get out!"  In one climactic scene one of them breaks into a dance that includes hip-hop moves.

The result is an insult to the intelligence of the audience (we can figured out what the show is going for without such nonsense, just as we do with the black and brown Founding Fathers in Hamilton). It's also an insult to the artistry and dignity of the actors involved.

Although the white actors don't fare much better. Perhaps too preoccupied with his political message, Godwin has neglected the inner lives of the people in the play and failed to create a cohesive environment in which actors of any color could develop them.

The period has been updated but it's not clear exactly when or why. The tone jerks from slapstick to melodrama, with stops along the way for a carnival interlude, complete with a dance number.

Meanwhile, the costumes hit a variety of decades, sometimes within the same scene. And it took me until the play was nearly over to realize that the abstract mobiles hanging over the stage were supposed to represent the cherry trees.

Understandably confused, the actors seem to have grabbed on to whatever style works best for them. The result is a mishmash. And if you haven't read or seen the play before, it can be difficult to keep track of who is related to whom and why it even matters.

This is a particular crime because the cast includes such usually terrific actors as Tina Benko, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Chuck Cooper, Tavi Gevinson, John Glover, Harold Perrineau and Joel Grey. 

The troupe is lead by Diane Lane, who made her Broadway debut as a child actress in the ensemble of the 1977 revival of the play (click here to read an interview with her) before going on to four decades of success in the movies, including an Oscar nomination.

Lane looks lovely in the outfits that Michael Krass has designed for her but she also looks somewhat lost, making Ranevskaya, the patrician but oblivious owner of the estate, recede into the doings instead of commanding center stage as she usually does.

My friend Ellie, a former actress who is given to taking a generous view of even the poorest production, said I was being too harsh as we discussed the play on our way out of the American Airlines Theatre, where the production is scheduled to play until Nov. 27. 

There were, Ellie said, things here and there that did work. She has a point. And among those things were the performances by Keenan-Bolger and Grey that managed to convey some of the poignancy that makes a Chekhov play Chekhov. 

But the thing that worked best for me was the trio of musicians—playing clarinet, violin and percussion—who sit in a box stage right for most of the evening and play incidental music composed by Nico Muhly. The melodies were lovely and haunting, creating their own poignant sense of what the rest of the show might have been.

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