Thursday, October 28, 2010

An Orchard

Adaptation of Chekov's CHERRY ORCHARD gets questionable interpretation by CWRU/CPH

Anton Chekov helped take Western theatre to a new level. Before Chekov and the other “modern” playwrights, much of European theatre was basically escapist romantic fluff, entertainment for the sake of entertainment.

Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg dove below the surface of culture and examined what people were doing, why they were motivated to take such actions, and the direction that the societies in which they found themselves were taking.

In THE CHERRY ORCHARD, an adaptation of which is being done by the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts students, Chekov cast an eye on the aristocracy of Russia and reflected that they were heading for a fall. He basically stated that their unrealistic life style was valueless, much like the overlooked and unused fruit of the cherry trees. He illustrated that the structure of reverence for societal position and wasteful value of life would soon be bulldozed under. He is credited with laying some of the ferment that eventually led to the Russian revolution. This is serious stuff.

The play concerns an aristocratic Russian woman and her family, owners of a large tract of land that contains a cherry orchard. The family has squandered its money and now is confronted with an unpayable mortgage. While presented with options to save the estate, the family, like the Russian aristocracy, essentially does nothing and the play ends to the sound of the cherry orchard being cut down, much like what will happen to the upper classes when the revolution takes place.

Supposedly, when THE CHERRY ORCHARD was first produced, Chekov expressed strong objection to the way in which Konstantin Stanislavski directed the show. That objection lead Stanislavski to reexamine the staging of plays and to his development of the Method Style of Acting in which the actor becomes the character, not acting like the character, clearly understanding the motivations and underpinnings of the person being portrayed.

THE CHERRY ORCHARD, or An ORCHARD as the CWRU/CPH version is titled, can be classified as a modern dramatic tragedy. Though there are times when humor can be injected, it is mainly a realistic look at the naivety of the Russian upper classes in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The approach of the CWRU/CPH production, under the direction of Mark Alan Gordon, which looks for the laughs, stresses overdone and often unrealistic characterizations, almost casting aside the prophetic nature of what is happening in the society and, specifically, to these misguided people, is questionable.

The females in the cast are quite acceptable. Kelli Ruttle as the mother, Kim Krane, the daughter, and Eva Gil, the adopted daughter, all develop characters who basically fit Chekov's writing. Ruttle is properly obtuse as a woman who cannot confront reality, singing merrily and spending money on a lavish party as her world collapses around her. Krane gives us a young woman who lets love lead her to what is an uncertain future with naivety. Gil clearly gives us a frustrated character who knows what is going on but is unable to change the course of action.

On the other hand, the males in the cast play their roles on the surface, lacking realism in their performances. Andrew Gorell so overdoes his role of the uncle that he is laughable, not allowing any room for empathy for his misguided plight. Yan Tual, as the elderly servant, walks like Charlie Chaplin and plays strictly for laughs, so that at the poignant ending of the play, his abandonment, like the destruction of the society, leaves no room for empathy. Dan Hendrock stomps around stage feigning the eventually victorious merchant who grows from serf to landholder. Michael Herbert is never convincing as the student who is supposed to represent the enlightened younger and educated class who will eventually lead the revolution.

In order to do Chekov well, the cast and production team need to understand the motivations behind the writing and the history of the era which is represented. Much of this educational element seems to have been overlooked in this production.

Jill Davis has converted the Studio One theatre into a forest in which the audience, sitting in unmatched chairs, are distributed among trees and set pieces. The effect is very positive as the actors move freely among the audience, making the viewers part of the action. One may question why, however, the orchard was made of birch rather than cherry trees, thus nullifying some of the symbolic underpinnings of the script.

Jeffrey Van Curtis has done an excellent job of creating era correct costumes.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: THE CHERRY ORCHARD is one of western theatre's great scripts. It gets a questionable interpretation from the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts program.