NO one shoots himself in The Cherry Orchard, though at one point a clerk trips into the wings with a revolver. The traditional offstage commotion is heard a few moments later but no one rushes in to report that Semyon Panteleevich Yepikhodov has blown his brains out. Instead a character surmises that some bucket has dropped in some well, the play goes on and Yepikhodov comes back to swallow nails in the fourth act.
Between Ivanov, Chekhov's first full-length play and first single-shot suicide, and Yepikhodov's unfulfilled promise to "shoot myself so to speak" in Chekhov's last play, something has obviously happened. Laurence Senelick, directing his own translation of Cherry Orchard, pays proper attention to the writer's final, bitter playfulness by mouthing a production that breaks through the somber fragilitv of traditional Chekhovian staging to a vital if slightly fuzzy theatricality.
The hoary mist that has hung over productions of Chekhov spumed from Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater: a distinctive technique marked by precise characterization, long pauses, distilled emotion, and tight pacing that presented the final pistol shots of an Ivanov or Seagull as the Q.E.D. of human tragedy, lucidly observed. In English-language productions, all this has been sustained by country-house diction supported by the characterological self-control necessary to maintain strong emotion over long sentences. These productions were, and are often powerful but they have two chronic diseases--boredom spawned by excessive refinement of speech and movement, and sympathetic anesthesia brought on by conventions that often dwindle into mannered absurdities. An audience can have too much of droopy trees and existential pluck. And there is of course always the question of whether Dr. Chekhov has anything to do with what's going onstage.
SENELICK uses the conventional style but he restricts it to one group of characters, primarily the downtrodden landlords, Raevskaya (Marilyn Pitzele), her brother Gaev (Bro Uttal) and their adopted daughter Varya (Janet Leslie). The style becomes part of the dramatic action of the production. It is a hot house aristocratic style of life and acting; constantly undercut on one side by a rude bourgeois frankness (played with 20th century realism) and on the other by a broad comedy, which is often the symbol and mockery of unclutered peasant bumpkinry.
Senelick's translation captures the three-part style of the play in its diction. The gentry speak standard Chekhov, Victorian dialect. The upwardly mobile Lopakhin (Ken Tigar), sweet, young Anya (Carolyn Firth) and occasional flunkeys speak a slangy, colloquial tongue, fresh and awkward; while a pod of surrounding actors, led by the shlemielesque "perennial student" Trofimov (Lloyd Schwartz), with his utopian panegyrics discoursed of Yepikhodov, talk a well-tuned language of parody and farce. None of the specific lines of the translation is, as they say, memorable--Senelick's staging eye works better than his ear--but they are smooth and serviceable.
This battle of speeches and styles provides a basic speed and excitement in the Agassiz production that can overcome any amount of slow cues and nervously mis-timed punchlines--both of which abounded last night. But the control was tight enough so that the sloppiness for the most part just ruined jokes instead of scenes.
This technique of direction, however, requires incredibly strong acting to keep the styles and their effects distinct. The principal problems of the Agassiz Cherry Orchard are the disturbing inconsistencies of characterization as actors fail to exploit the peculiar logic of their styles in moments of crisis and dip into the grab bag of general histrionics to carry them through. After Ken Tigar recovered from some painful timing slips in the first act he gave a striking portrayal of a serf turned manager. His nagging, casually enunciated, and loud voice move against the general strength of Marilyn Pitzele's Ranevskaya. But in his most important scene where he exults over buying out the estate of his former landlords, his marvelous whine was crippled by a series of stock agonizing gestures.
SIMILARLY, Bro Uttal's impotent, decaying gentleman, Gaev, was hampered by his conventional stage voice, Except for a few aberrant excursions into a Russian accent--notably a weird first-act "Dat's vhy"--he spoke clearly, firmly, strongly and wrongly in a kind of Laurence Harvey accent that disappeared only when his acting instincts carried him away. And Lloyd Schwartz's charming enthusiast Trofimov, who ended the first act in an exquisitely naive love scene with Miss Firth, seemed afterwards unsure how to time and blend his seriousness and humor.
The problem may be nothing more than a lack of faith on the part of Director Senelick and his cast, a conservative interpretation of the limits of any one style of characterization. But Miss Pitzele and Ivan Lamb, as a loyal butler who has kept alive on sealing wax for twenty years, offer fine examples of actors who established stature from with in a consistently played character.
Senelick's general conception of course has weaknesses. It helplessly exposes poorly written roles, like that of Simeonov-Pischik, a rather pointless proverb-spouting neighbor played by Reggie Stuart, and Chekhov's occasional lapses of imagination. They can no longer hide behind the Slavic fog. But at the same time, the director's shaping of his Cherry Orchard makes the play funny, exciting, and intriguing as well as traditionally poignant. The play took just under three hours and you couldn't notice it, which even in the Moscow Art Theatre would be quite something.