Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Cherry Orchard

The Imagination may be defined to be, the use which the Reason makes of the material world. Shakspeare possesses the power of subordinating nature for the purposes of expression, beyond all poets. His imperial muse tosses the creation like a bauble from hand to hand, and uses it to embody any caprice of thought that is upper-most in his mind. The remotest spaces of nature are visited, and the farthest sundered things are brought together, by a subtle spiritual connection.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson - Nature

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously characterized Shakespeare's and his wondrous ability to engage with nature as a skilled juggler who uses images of nature as his juggling apparatus.

Chekhov's intricate knowledge of melodrama allowed him to juggle and turn over its cliches and its powers as if he were a magician. In his Cherry Orchard, Carlotta, a governess, does a few slieght of hand and conjuring tricks, but her technique is unpolished and amateurish. Chekhov, on the other hand, is so sly in his subversion that we tend not to notice we have been fooled.

His influence on us today is likewise scarcely detected, but it runs incredibly deep. Mountings of his plays are events in the theatre community, and star turns in high profile productions are awaited with held breath. Why is this?

Harold Bloom places Chekhov's genius close to Shakespeare's ability to "Invent the Human." Indeed, some Chekhovian characters are probably as close to flesh and blood inhabitants of this earth as we can get in drama. Their complexities seem almost delightfully simple, and rather than express confusion at their sometimes incongruous choices, we wonder at their folly or their triumph.

His plays are populated with Hamlets, and like the deep-feeling prince who finds himself in potboiler, Chekhov's feeling people find themselves locked in a melodrama in which they are dependent upon the author to set them free. Chekhov does much to oblige, and his genius has kept characters like Lopahkin, Nina, and even Ivanov breathing for over 100 years.

In the last quarter century productions have turned more conceptual, and there have been productions that have garnered much critical praise. More recentley, the focus has been more on Chekhov's insistence that plays like the Cherry Orchard were farcical. This seems to have led to broader comic and physical productions which I personally cannot stomach very much of. However, the seeds planted by the vangaurd of these experimental productions may bear much fruit in what will hopefully be a next generation of Chekhov performance.

Nicholas Martin's production of The Cherry Orchard at the Huntington is a hopeful harbinger. I will admit that I was starting to cringe when the ever-clumsy Yephikhodov executes many stunts in just the first few minutes, but eventually the play settles into a balancing act, (though a little to unsteadily,) between the farcical and the dramatic. The broad nature of the portrayals does seem to overwhelm the humanity of the relationships, and the yin and yang of the comic and the serious flit back and forth with such intensity that it loses focus.

However, Martin treads close enough to the line that the infamous proposal scene between Lopahkin and Varya maintains Chekhov's suspense, comedy and heartbreak in the air like the skilled juggler he was. I only wish that such tensions were maintained more often in this production. I may return to the production later in the run, because my suspicion is that the cast needs more time to relax into things.

The critical reception has been generally positive. The Times was all about Burton, Louise Kennedy of the Globe enjoyed it, Thomas Garvey of Hubreview was satisfied with many aspects, Carl Rossi has an interesting take, and Will Stackman perhaps sums it up best at the conclusion of his review by saying that the definitive production remains elusive.

Maybe not for long.

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