KPBS AIRDATE: April 30, 1997
Chekhov is known as a master of simplicity and compassion. All his great works were motivated by one guiding principle: to show life as it is, without story-telling contrivances or hyperbolic behavior. Despite the tragedy and melodrama the Moscow Art Theatre brought to his plays, Chekhov always thought of them as comedies. But what would he think of Sean Murray’s production of “The Cherry Orchard,” which turns a classic into a farce?
The pace is frenetic, and there’s everything from pratfalls to dithering and denouncing, blundering in and out, sneaking around and groping each other salaciously. In other words, Chekhov meets the Marx Brothers.
While the directorial choices could be said to match David Mamet’s very snappy, modern adaptation, they are completely dissonant with the text. Like all of the Russian playwright’s works, “The Cherry Orchard” focuses on the listless torpor of a fading aristocracy. Characters merely drift toward the future, with their eyes, minds and hearts rooted in the past. This cast is frantic and driven, at least in the first act. Maybe that’s an apt reflection of our times, just as Chekhov intended his works to be a mirror of his own era almost a century ago. “Life,” he said, “must be represented exactly as it is, and people as they are — not on stilts.” By the second act of this production, the stilts are removed, the frenzied pace dies down, and the actors actually start playing something vaguely resembling Chekhov. There are some touching scenes, especially between the idealistic young lovers.
Sean Murray is extremely creative and talented. I will always associate him with two unforgettable theatrical events: his beautifully daring direction of “The Tempest” on the beach and his outrageous portrayal of Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show.” Too bad he didn’t bring more of the majestic subtlety of the former and less of the camp excess of the latter to this production. Chekhov’s characters, representing the types and strata of his society, are often fools, and they frequently act a bit ridiculous, but he always treated them with respect. These people are so garish and overblown, they elicit little more than disdain. The loud, brash bawdiness of Dana Hooley, and the sleaze of Christopher Lee White belong in some other play.
But I must say that, although I find his concept misguided, Murray has assembled some excellent players. Sandra Ellis-Troy is a rather regal Ranevskaya, the owner of the orchard who has so frittered away the family fortune that she is about to lose her beloved ancestral estate. Equally powerful performances are offered by the always-solid Jim Johnston as the bumbling Gaev; Louis Seitchik as a credibly no-nonsense Lopakhin, the budding land developer; George Flint as the old valet, Firs; and Ayla Yarkut as the charmingly ingenuous young Anya.
It’s a banner year for Chekhov; this is the third production in as many months. But only one, “Uncle Vanya” at San Diego Rep, really rose to the occasion, and captured the essence of a masterpiece.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.