Moscow on the Hudson: The Cherry Orchard @ BAM

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Photo: Joan Marcus

The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s final play, begins with the arrival of Liubov to her childhood estate, which is about to be auctioned off to cover her debts. Kopakhin, a millionaire of peasant origins who grew up with Liubov, has a plan to save the estate and the orchard, and Gaiev, Liubov’s brother, has plans of his own. Nonetheless, the auction takes place just as surely as Godot never arrives, leaving Chekhov the opportunity to play with variations on the work’s major theme: abundant affection coupled with an absence of tact.

Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the play is in production at BAM until March 8, under the direction of Sam Mendes. We expected nothing short of perfection from Stoppard, but, shockingly, he seems oblivious to the importance of “tact” in the play’s construction. (In one important instance, the line “But you have to, you have to express yourself differently” is flatly rendered as “That’s not the same thing.”) Because the major theme of The Cherry Orchard was lost in translation, the actors are not properly conducted toward a full realization of the play, even with a pro like Mendes at the helm. They’re on their own in this cacophonous production. Some manage to strike the right notes anyway; others are painfully sharp.

We loved Russell Beale as Lopakhin. Rather than playing a rapacious kulak, eager to profit by clearing the orchard, Beale displays Lopakhin’s essential kindness: his harsh and calculating suggestions are all made for Liubov’s benefit. And Richard Easton is magnificent as Firs, a loyal serf who ― uninterested in confronting the responsibilities of freedom ― eagerly renounced the emancipation of his class. It’s a comic role, but Easton does not portray a bumbling sitcom butler. The humor results from the contrast between Firs’ self-possession and his physical deterioration, a point that Chekhov makes with perfect economy: “You’ve got so old, Firs!” somebody exclaims. “Well, I’ve lived a long time.” This synthesis of the ridiculous and the pathetic is the key to Chekhov’s humor; nearly every joke is delivered as instructed: “(through tears)”.

Put differently, Chekhov cares about his characters, but is detached enough to laugh at their foolishness. As it happens, this is the best definition of “irony” that we can think of. The worst? “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” Memorably muttered by Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites, this is actually a definition of sarcasm, which has no place in Chekhov. Hawke carries the mistake over into his performance of Trofimov, transforming a career student who is earnest but stupid as only the over-educated can be (“Anya and I are above love”) into an irritating hipster.

In the original performance of The Cherry Orchard at the Moscow Art Theater, Varya was played Stanislavski’s wife, Maria Petrovna. This plain and simple-minded character is one of the most important roles in the play, but Petrovna was concerned about being typecast. Chekhov said that she needn’t worry, “because in the first place she is a talented person.” If her performance of Varya is indicative, Rebecca Hall is not a talented person. Hall is happy that The Bridge Project will also allow her to perform in The Winter’s Tale , for vanity’s sake: “So when I play unsexy Varya in Cherry Orchard, I can really play her completely, knowing that I get to play glamorous Hermione in Winter’s Tale the next night. I don’t have to worry about people thinking I’m always an awful frump.” Chekhov described Varya as “a crybaby by nature”; Liubov says that she “looks like a nun.” Despite this, Hall plays her as the most willful and confident character in the play. Of course, it isn’t necessary to be homely in order to play a homely character effectively, and Hall doesn’t fail to portray Varya because she’s pretty. She fails because she is vain.

Otherwise, Anthony Ward’s sets were forgettable, but Mark Bennett’s music was not: the spare aluminum harp and violin were perfect set ups for that infamous “sound of a breaking string” that punctuates the second act and concludes the play. We take issue with Mendes’ quaintly Soviet interpretation of the first instance of that sound, but have no complaints about the second.

* Only in The Cherry Orchard does Chekhov always indicate the precise time of day, particularly in the first act, which takes place from early morning to sunrise, and the second, which takes place from mid-evening to sunset. One imagines that lighting designer Paul Pyant would have taken full advantage of these details, but he missed the chance. To see just how beautiful these moments can be, watch the recently released Criterion DVD of Days of Heaven: director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Nestor Almendros shot every outdoor scene during those “magic hours” of sunless light at dawn and dusk.