The Cherry Orchard
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
January 15, 2009
"Whenever you have a lot of different remedies prescribed for some disease, it means there's no cure."
A great play is like a terminal illness: it is intractable, profound, fatal. No one experiences it quite the same, and yet everyone can—or will someday be able to—relate. Interpretation, the act of transposing a piece of dramatic writing to the stage by directors, designers, and actors, is necessary, much like discerning the best way to manage a deadly disease as it takes its inevitable course. A concept (or re-framing), however, is like a miracle cure: promising, futile, and at times even destructive.
In his semi-opulent and uneven take on The Cherry Orchard, Sam Mendes really wants us to know that Chekhov is seriously addressing class wars and anti-Semitism, the decline of the aristocracy and upward mobility of the peasantry, a disorienting process of civic equalization. Indeed, he was. However, Chekhov's play (which I quoted above) is also an inquiry into why we fall in love with people who ignore us, why we coddle those whose self-destructive tendencies will eventually destroy us as well, why we think money says absolutely anything at all about what we refer to as our "character." And Chekhov was also writing a comedy.
The expansive and unsettling space, the harsh red lights and enormous shadows on the wall, the wan and piercing one-note musical memory-motif—it is as if Mendes is worried that his audience will take everything at face value; that it is somehow unclear in Chekhov's writing (and in the translation by Tom Stoppard) that there is wisdom to be gained if we look beneath the characters' follies. I, for one, would much rather witness a classic play being conspicuously stripped down or spectacularly obliterated, than be emotionally, intellectually, and morally tour-guided through a figurative city I am perfectly capable of exploring myself.
Underneath this distracting patina of poignancy is a funny and well-acted production. Stoppard's translation is sly and witty as it captures the mindless (and sometimes heartless) expression of facile sentiments as well as the longing these sentiments attempt to hide. Much as I am unable, due to limitations of space, to recap the premise of this oft-produced classic play, I am also unable to individually praise all the members of this fine ensemble so I will have to be very selective.
There is never a good reason to miss an opportunity to see Richard Easton. His Firs, the aged muttering manservant who knows (and needs to know) his place, seems to fear peasants with money more than his privileged employers fear poverty; it's rather like watching the Queen of England have dinner at Hooters. Yasha, the snarky younger manservant, played with deep and startling arrogance by Josh Hamilton, is to Firs a perfect threat. But to the housemaid, Dunyasha (Charlotte Parry, in a hilariously desperate and dignity-free turn), he is a most attractive promise—of what, we are not sure. Ethan Hawke's Trofimov (an often thankless part) is very clear on what he has to offer, and Hawke simmers as he describes to Ranevskaya (who owns the eponymous piece of land—Sinead Cusack as an aging Cinderella in reverse) his feelings for her daughter, which so transcend trivial romantic love!
Ah but these are all mere glimpses of The Cherry Orchard—a great play which, like illness and death, is universal; a dramatic masterpiece that needs little more than a host of very good performances for us to know its relevance.