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A Chekhov Experiment

Finally catching up with the remaining shows from 2011, and I’ll start with one of the best of the year: Classic Stage’s production of The Cherry Orchard, which, if you can believe it, is actually still running; you could see it this weekend if you could only score a ticket.

The Cherry Orchard is the most experimental of Chekhov’s major plays. Indeed, it feels to me like the essential forerunner of Beckett – in this production in particular, possibly because I’d seen John Turturro (who plays Lopakhin) and Alvin Epstein (who plays Fiers) in a production of Endgame at the Brooklyn Academy of Music not long ago. First, this is a play in which, essentially, nothing happens. I suppose that’s not literally true – the cherry orchard is sold, after all, though that feels more like inevitable fate than an action; if Lopakhin hadn’t bought it and chopped it down, someone else would have. The mood of people passing the time at the end of (their) world, of starting little routines that don’t go anywhere – the character Charlotta, the magician, what she’s doing in this circus God only knows – never settles quite the same way until Godot. But second, and more essentially, Chekhov’s characters in this play are more essentially isolated, more essentially alone than in any of his prior work, in very much the way that, for example, the characters in Endgame, though they are trapped together, are not, in any real sense, with each other. (And then, of course, there’s Fiers’s own endgame, forgotten and abandoned.)

This production undertakes a few experiments of its own, some involving the translation, which was commissioned for this production and which is strikingly different in tone from the colloquial (and effective, but different) Three Sisters translation CSC used last year, but also avoids the dusty quality of out-of-date Chekhov translations – it seemed to be aiming for timelessness via a very plain and direct style, and admirably achieved its aim. The big experiment, though, was breaking the fourth wall, having characters address the audience and even, a couple of times, enter and involve the audience. This has nothing to do with Chekhov, and little to do with Beckett; it’s more Elizabethan than anything else – and yet, while it brought us closer to the characters themselves, it underlined their isolation from each other. They might talk to us more readily than they’d talk to each other; they might, in fact, talk to us, not so much in soliloquy but in confidence, because we’re the only ones listening. It works marvelously precisely because although as a matter of theatrical style it’s alien to the text, it achieves a theatrical objective that is very much in harmony with it. Which is exactly what a creative experiment should strive for.

The spine of the story is about real estate: the disposition of the family estate, and the “famous” cherry orchard thereon. Mme. Ranevskaya comes back home, knowing that “something” has to be done if the estate is to be saved; she does nothing; the estate is not saved, but is bought by Lopakhin; she, and her family, leave. This all feels so symbolic, and the play lends itself to symbolic interpretations heavy on class – Mme. Ranevskaya and her brother, Gayev, representing the fading aristocracy; Lopakhin, the former serf turned successful business tycoon, representing the rising middle class; Trofimov representing the left-wing intelligentsia that would play a crucial role in both the failed revolution of 1905 (less than two years after the premier of the play) and the successful revolution of 1917. The last production of the play that I saw before this one, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, leaned very much on this kind of symbolic interpretation, with surly, disgruntled workers lurking about the stage, waiting for their opportunity to rise against this decadent dithering, and while, as I say, the play lends itself to that kind of interpretation, I don’t think such an approach serves the play at all.

To my mind, the class background is just that: background, the scene upon which the drama is played. This isn’t a play about the rising middle class and the fading aristocracy, the transition from feudal to commercial values. It’s a play that’s set at a time of class and values transition. To the extent that the play calls attention to these values – either those that are fading or those that are rising – it’s to satirize them. That’s patently the point of Gayev’s absurd speech to the cabinet in the nursery, but deeper and darker, it’s also the point of Lopakhin’s antipathy toward Varya. Varya, it must be admitted, isn’t a very appealing character; she spends almost the entire play shouting at people. But all she’s trying to do is save the family from destitution which, if we are to believe Lopakhin, is all he wants as well. Why, then, is he so patently hostile to her, not even showing her the bland affection that, say Kulygin shows for his sister-in-law Olga (who he knows would have been a better match for him)?

This production did a great service to the story in casting the exceptionally lovely Juliet Rylance as Varya, thereby removing from consideration the possibility that Lopakhin is so hostile to the idea of marrying Varya because he doesn’t find her physically attractive. What he sees in her, rather, is a cramped quality of soul, a meanness. A meanness that, no doubt, she had to learn simply to survive, given the impossibility of her position, and we’re meant to sense that there’s a good person down there underneath it, but that person is pretty deeply buried by the time the play begins. She shows herself, briefly, in the failed proposal scene – which is played to wonderful comic effect by Turturro and Rylance in this production, Turturro’s Lopakhin trying, earnestly, to make himself say the words he really doesn’t want to say, Rylance’s Varya waiting for them, patiently, trying to urge him on with her eyes, her smile (a smile we’ve never seen shine so warmly in her earlier scenes). It’s a comic scene because it’s not a scene about embarrassment; it’s not that Lopakhin can’t bring himself to propose to Varya because he’s afraid to propose, but that he is horrified by the idea of spending his life with her, but he’s too decent a man to admit that, even to himself.

Why does he detest that idea so much? Presumably because he sees enough meanness in himself that he doesn’t want to be around it. Turturro does a splendid job with the scenes where Lopakhin recalls his past as a slave (before the serfs were freed); two generations of impoverished Italian immigrants seemed to speak through him. But those speeches are the character background that explains his antipathy toward Varya. I don’t get any sense from Lopakhin that he has class ambitions – he has no interest in marrying into the aristocracy. If he wanted to set himself up as an aristocrat, he’d have bought the estate and lived on it. Rather, he senses a quality of soul in Mme. Ranevskaya that he wants to be associated with. He knows what it took to become what he is, how much work, how much discipline, how much indifference – he brags about it to Trofimov, after all, and, more vulgarly, in his drunkenness, to Mme. Ranevskaya herself, after he returns from the auction. He loves her precisely for the quality of extreme open-handedness that he knows has led her to her doom. Which means, of course, that all his speeches about how they could save themselves by cutting down the orchard and putting up cottages are in bad faith, though he surely doesn’t know that. If they did what he advised, he’d hate them for it, just as he hates Varya. Instead, he’ll buy the estate, cut down the orchard himself, and content himself with hating himself.

But what is it about Mme. Ranevskaya? Does he see something that we see, or does he only see something that is meaningful to him? This is the first production, and Diane Wiest the first Ranevskaya, that made me think that maybe, maybe, he sees something real rather than just something that he wants to see. I’ve always had a bit of contempt for Mme. Ranevskaya; she’s a very silly person, who, it always seemed to me, needed somebody to give her a good shake and a talking to. Her brother Gayev obviously wasn’t going to do the job; and the tragedy, such as it is, always seemed to me to be that she was too much of a snob to see that Lopakhin was exactly what she needed. Which is a pretty shallow tragedy, when it comes right down to it. Well, maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, and maybe it’s Wiest’s performance, most likely both, but I get it now. Because Wiest’s Ranevskaya is an absolute darling. Any man who didn’t just want to hold her and protect her, just as she is, well, that fellow’s suffering from a dangerous deficiency of sentimental affection. But she’s a clever girl, under all that, in matters of the heart. Look at her speech to Trofimov about love. Wiest delivers it without guile – she’s quite serious, which is precisely what makes it both powerful and funny. (And how anyone can take Trofimov seriously as the hero of the piece – the vanguard of the revolution – after this confrontation, I don’t know.) This is the closest we come to a creedal declaration from Mme. Ranevskaya; love is what she believes. And she lives what she believes. (I like to think that if Marylin Monroe had lived another twenty years, this would have been a good part for her – a part that would prove to the world once and for all that she was an actress, not just a movie star.)

And she doesn’t love Lopakhin. She’s embarrassed, repulsed by the very idea, and it’s not a class thing, it’s not snobbery, not purely or primarily. She sees that he is trying to save himself by saving her, and that if she lets him save her it will destroy her. She sees that, even though she probably doesn’t know precisely what she sees. She’s right: Varya is a good match for him. That’s why he can’t bear the thought of marrying her. That’s why it’s so painful for Varya that he won’t think marrying her, why she hasn’t long since moved on to some other prospect.

All this heartache, I should stress, is handled with great tenderness by this production. I’ve talked a lot about meanness, but Turturro’s Lopakhin is very gentle, actually, very sweet, and Rylance’s Varya so obviously wants to be loved, and to be a tender caretaker to someone who she can love, and not just worry about all the time. The play is very funny – everyone’s comic timing is super-sharp, but I particularly have to call out Alvin Epstein for a bravura performance as Fiers. It’s striking to see an old man play an old man, but to do it acting, playing a different old man than he actually is, as opposed to seeing a younger actor play “old” or an older actor play “the kind of old guy I play.” The play funny the way Beckett is funny; funny because people are absurd, and we have to laugh to keep from crying. Chekhov is second only to Shakespeare among dramatists for the depth and breadth of his imaginative sympathy, and I give all credit to the director, Andrei Belgrader, the translator, John Christopher Jones, and the entire company, who worked collaboratively with both the director and the translator all through the process, for engaging their own imaginative sympathy, and thereby bringing these funny, lonely people back to life.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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