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Thursday, June 16, 2005


The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Tom Donaghy
directed by Scott Zigler, starring Brooke Adams and Larry Bryggman
Atlantic Theater Company.

Atlantic's new production of The Cherry Orchard is already looking like the whipping boy of the post-season. But I was at the opening last night and saw a completely different show than what is described in today's papers. In full disclosure, I'll admit I have some associations with Atlantic, but had no connection to this production. And I'll stand by my objective judgment that this is one of the most successful (and, at least, interesting) American stagings of Chekhov I've seen in recent years. Its only sin is in its refusal to accept any pat critical notions of what Chekhov is supposed to be and deal with the text afresh. Don't mess with Chekhov, has been the response so far.

The critics today would have you believe director Scott Zigler and his playwright/adaptor Tom Donaghy simply took Chekhov's old (ambiguous) dictum of the play being a "comedy" too far and sullied it with "slapstick" (NY Post). What they have done, though, is far more subtle and thoughtful than an all-out pratfall & winking Chekhov (and believe me, I've seen that). True, they let the funny lines be funny! They let the characters be as contradictory, foolish, and unfeeling as they have been written. But they do so without alleviating that with any of the ancien regime nostalgia we theatre snobs still come to expect from this play. Yes, we like to trash Stanislavsky for ruining Chekhov's comic spirit with sentimentality--but we still want the play to be beautiful and touching. The NY Sun's Helen Shaw says, "Jokes land but the pathos floats by; notes of individual need sound clearly, but the chords necessary for romantic relationships don't play at all." That's right. There is no romance in this play--no requited or fulfilled romance, at least. What do these people want from poor Chekhov?

I think the problem is Zigler is an intellectual director (or should I just say intelligent) who is offering a somewhat (yes) cold but meticulously detailed reading of the play. Granted, cold isn't everyone's style, but to question the skill of the production confounds me. I was astonished by the specificity of so many of the characterizations. Isherwood in the Times
rightly (but grudgingly) singles out the magnificent clowning of veterans Larry Bryggman and Peter Maloney. But he dismisses so many others in this impressive cast, including Diana Ruppe's Varya. I'm sure Ruppe--a little stick-figure of tightly wound energy--is turning off these critics with her neurotic and hardly glamorous portrayal of what, I suppose, comes closest to a female romantic lead in this play. But it rang totally true to me for a young woman trying to forestall the disintegration of her aristocratic family and who ends up in pathetic circumstances (as Donaghy's version bluntly puts it "a housekeeper"). Quite a statement. And sure to piss off many. But that's what you get for daring to interpret the play rather than "the tradition."

Isherwood says a lot of outrageous things today. (What buttons did this push, I wonder?) He calls the casting of the African American actor Isiah Whitlock Jr. as the serf-turned-capitalist Lopakhin "taste-blind" (over "color blind") and that "this distracting choice hints at parallels with American history that are simplistic and irrelevant." Equating the specific historical crimes Russian serfdom with American slavery would be insensitive, in a history class, I agree. But just "irrelevant"??? Even as a theatrical point of reference? I did have reservations about Whitlock's acting, but in an American Chekhov why not use whatever we have in our own culture to demarcate race and class in ways that are at least analogous. Isherwood, of course, ignores the strong precedent for such casting in countless productions already (including one at Princeton's McCarter Theatre recently where Emily Mann cast even more along racial lines to emphasize parallels to the old South and slavery). And I, for one, felt the shudders when Lopakhin in Act III boasts of buying the land his father was enslaved on. (Note to Isherwood: serfs were human property.)

Isherwood closes with a beaut:

Strangely, Chekhov's plays have a way of disintegrating entirely when they are presented in ineffective productions like this one. Despite our affirmed knowledge of this dramatist's artistry, we find ourselves mystified, staring at a stage full of ill-defined characters hurling sighs, gripes and non sequiturs at one another. Where did all the genius get to?
What Zigler, Donaghy, and the cast captures so well are the "non-sequiturs" endemic to Chekhov. After seeing so many American method actors struggle to smooth over the bumps, to justify so many "weird" lines--like Gaev's constant play-by-play of an imaginary billiards game--how refreshing to see such contradictory impulses and changes of subject embraced, and committed to. Yes, the effect can be to make us wonder at these strange characters--in other words, the characters Chekhov wrote. Reading such criticism above makes me feel I'm back in 1910, when people were saying exactly the same thing about Chekhov.

Lost in all of this myopia is the achievement of Tom Donaghy's adaptation of the text, which has even more virtues than I have time to go into now. But even with all the zillions of English Cherry Orchards out there, I recommend getting the rights to this for your next production. Yes, it "breaks a few eggs" in finding a comfortable American vernacular (especially for the non-aristocrats) but I didn't feel anything was truly anachronistic. As for the acting, I do have to admit I wish Lopakhin and Madame Ranevsky (Brooke Adams) were better--which might strike you as a startling admission since they're usually considered the two stars! But so strong is the ensemble (and the production so strongly conceived of as an ensemble play) that those weaknesses never take over. In addition to those mentioned I also want to single out Erin Gann's runt of a Yasha; Scott Foley's surprisingly stage-worthy turn as the angry grad student Trofimov; and, finally, the great Alvin Epstein reinventing the role of Firs, the aged butler left behind by history. Frank Scheck, in the Post, uses Epstein's legend as the original American Lucky in Waiting for Godot against him by deeming his performance "more Beckett than Chekhov." That's a criticism??? The silent tableaux Zigler and Epstein make of the play's ending is indeed a chilling (and even moving!) Beckettian miniature. But you won't read anything about that in these notices today.

I urge readers out there interested in Chekhov to give this production a try. At the very least, you won't see a better Cherry Orchard (or maybe any Chekhov) this year. Top ticket is a reasonable Off-B'way $50 (available on but I'm sure discounts are to be had. (Especially, alas, after these reviews.)

Once again, here are the links to the above mentioned culprits--ahem, critics:
Charles Isherwood, NY Times
Helen Shaw, NY Sun (pay-only for full text)
Ralph Scheck, NY Post

[Update: at least Feingold and McCarter see some the fine virtues]


Anonymous said...

Backstage and Newsday seem to agree.

Contrapositive said...

Still sorting out my reaction to the production--just saw it last night--but one thing is clear: Anyone who messes with Alvin Esptein deserves a serious hiding.

Not only is Epstein a visually engrossing physical specimen. He's also doing some exceptionally good and subtle work here.

I'm surprised anyone could walk out of the production feeling differently.

Anonymous said...

Helen Shaw is a humourless dramaturg. She is a sad student from A.R.T. What is they teach these people that make them want to be critics?