Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Virus Spreads, but not Unchecked

In case you were wondering what happens to the American Repertory Theatre's classic aesthetic when it ventures beyond it’s nurtured and womb-like reverence it receives here in Boston, Scott Zigler, ART veteran director has staged The Cherry Orchard at The Atlantic Theatre Company in New York City.

Luckily, there are antibodies that are significantly strong enough to conquer the virus... for now:

Charles Isherwood of the New York Times:

"The debate about evoking the proper measurements of humor and pathos in the plays of Anton Chekhov will endure as long as they are produced, which is to say as long as civilization endures. The new staging of The Cherry Orchard that opened last night at the Atlantic Theater Company, directed by Scott Zigler,
settles the question, evenly if dubiously: it fails more or less equally at eliciting laughter and tears."

He doesn’t go into too much detail about the elements that make this production a failure, but at the end of the review it is revealed and those of us who have experienced it here in Cambridge, know just of what Mr. Isherwood speaks:

"Strangely, Chekhov's plays have a way of disintegrating entirely when they are presented in ineffective productions like this one. Despite our affirmed knowledge of this dramatist's artistry, we find ourselves mystified, staring at a stage full of ill-defined characters hurling sighs, gripes and non sequiturs at one another. Where did all the genius get to?"

Hilton Als of the The New Yorker is not as kind:

"…the production is far from modern. Instead, Zigler has put together a stiltedly old-fashioned show, full of male bombast and female fluttering, with every moment of silence taken up by mugging or sight gags."

Any who have sat through an ART classic empathize. Als goes on:

"As a whole, the actors are so poorly directed that their performances amount to a form of camp. Adams makes
a gallant effort to project dignity and a kind of tarnished grace, but she is weighed down by the other members of the cast, who play their parts in quotation marks."

And here he sums up exactly my feelings on watching the ridiculous Checkov shorts they did a few years ago:

"And while Zigler has cast the show with a number of adults—including the fine film actress Brooke Adams—it is ultimately a high-school production, amateurish and gleaming with anxious, doomed hope."

Theatermania’s review fights hard:

"Conversely, Zigler nearly obliterates the subtext and treats poignant scenes as if they are fodder for slapstick routines. In its best moments, the production is like a feather duster on a baroque cabinet, but purists beware; it's just as often equivalent to a Brillo pad on fine china."

Goes in for the kill…

"Yet Chekhov famously labeled his plays "comedies," and the creative team interprets this as an open call to indulge in labored shtick."

But then succumbs to the academic propaganda that has long protected the ART productions:

"Before dismissing the production as entirely misguided, theatergoers should know that this kind of approach has historical justification. According to the influential Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, Chekhov said his plays were ‘vaudevilles’ that his contemporary Stanislavski had corrupted into ‘sentimental dramas.’ …..Still, this flawed revival makes so many bold and interesting choices that it shouldn't be missed by anyone who cares about Chekhov."

Perhaps the Emperor has no clothes after all. As sort of a control experiment, I also searched the reviews for mention of Alvin Epstein, and, right on cue, they confirmed my experiences of watching ART Checkov. For instance, Isherwood writes:

"Alvin Epstein, who plays the senescent servant Firs, provides a welcome infusion of focused energy with his engaging, physically inventive performance, eyebrows twitching in confusion at the blurry world evaporating before his eyes."

Amen Brother.

Lest any person reading misunderstand, I am not doing this to pick on Scott Zigler, who has directed some very effective productions. And I have really enjoyed some of the more revelatory productions at the Loeb Drama Center. More I am doing this as a sanity check for those of us who stand mystified at the end of some ART productions, and then horrified when we read the local reviews praising them.

What I have always felt is that a young company doing the same type of experiments would be eviscerated for such juvenile high jinks.

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