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Classical Gas 

Why Chekhov is fading and Shakespeare isn’t

Wednesday, Feb 22 2006
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Generations of drama students have been taught that Chekhov wrote classics, works that endure the tempests of the decades. We’ve been taught many things. That doesn’t mean they’re true, and the Taper’s production of The Cherry Orchard hastriggered the painful realization that Russia’s most famous turn-of-the-last-century dramatist, Anton Chekhov, wrote a body of plays that’s slowly — no, quickly — waning in significance.

The Cherry Orchard is about spendthrift Lyubov Ranyevskaya’s (Annette Bening) return to her provincial Russian estate in the early 20th century after a disastrous love affair in Paris that has left her and her clan in a catastrophe of debts, which she and they refuse to acknowledge. Sort of like America today, you may say. Well, yes and no. In The Cherry Orchard, there’s a hope that the burgeoning middle class might save the day by offering to lease plots of the family’s farmland, if Ranyevskaya allows the emblematic orchard to be axed. In America today, the middle class is actually disappearing, so that parallel is a dubious one.

Ranyevskaya ran to France in the wake of two deaths: her mother’s and that of her son, who drowned accidentally in the local river. And now she’s come home to face the facts. But the debt-ridden family need not endure poverty and exile. The leasing solution is offered by Lopakhin (Alfred Molina), the uneducated, spurned, nouveau riche grandson of a slave. Furthermore, if somebody doesn’t formally propose a solution soon, a public auction threatens to allow a stranger to buy out the estate from under them. This is why Lopakhin, the vulgarian, winds up with the keys to the place. It’s the Russian Revolution foreshadowed. An ancient manservant named Firs (Alan Mandell) embodies the life, the epoch, that’s collapsing around them. Deaf, senile and muttering non sequiturs, Firs recalls the “misfortune” of the serfs being freed.

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Any Chekhov play can be set in the antebellum South or Marin County, if a director wishes to point to certain threads of familiarity, but that’s not the same as a play emerging as universal. Chekhov paved the way for dramatists who composed works of poetry and drama that have aged more gracefully — those by Samuel Beckett, for example, whose writings are less widely known and produced than Chekhov’s, but whose verities are eternal. When Beckett writes about the end of the world, he’s writing about the end of the world. When Chekhov writes about the end of the world, he’s writing about the end of the Russian aristocracy in the early 20th century, even with his profound and humane understanding of people. Chekhov’s depictions of characters ensnared in unrequited love, and lust, still speak to us, as they do in so many wonderful French farces that nobody produces anymore. There’s no question that Chekhov’s plays are treasures. The larger question is, what’s the difference between a treasure and a classic?

When asked to explain the character of Doctor Astrov in Uncle Vanya, Chekhov replied, “He wears a silk tie.” In this somewhat cryptic response, Chekhov was referring to the futile attempts at elegance by a doctor traveling on horseback across muddy roads, ditches really, while suffocating from the plethora of filth and disease he encounters across the provinces. The core, however, is the silk tie — the barbarian world and, in it, the ludicrous stab at gentility that lies at the essence of Chekhov’s plays.

If you track Chekhov’s dialogue, with all its wondrous imagery and economy, you’ll find a gallery of well-meaning people who mean what they say but who fail to listen to each other. You’ll hear characters giving earnest confessions to others across the room who are dozing off, comically. The most brutal aspect of Chekhov’s characters is their insensitivity. If they would ever hurt a fly, they might withhold the fact, they might change the subject, but they’d never knowingly lie or dissemble. That would be vulgar. Their sweet essence has so little to do with our age, it places The Cherry Orchard next to Oklahoma! in terms of relevance. It’s a window onto a fantasy of who we were.

Chekhov is gathering dust because our culture is so far beyond even the remotest attempt at gentility. Our conversations are not ruminations interrupted by people on a different track. Our conversations are screaming matches. Dissenters are not politely given their say and then challenged with reasonable counterarguments. They are Swift Boated, discredited and impeached by people who do not mean well, and who do lie, knowingly. Motivation in our culture is not polite; it’s duplicitous if not venal. You can find all this in Shakespeare, which is why the Bard is so damnably enduring.

Sean Mathias’ production of The Cherry Orchard for the Taper offers a series of revelations, even though it’s not particularly good (few are). Its first revelation is an obvious one: how difficult it is to master Chekhov’s tonal blend of vaudeville and ennui. Near the top, Mathias sends the clerk, Yepikhodov (Raphael Sbarge), flowers in hand, tumbling onto the stage with a perfectly executed pratfall. In the middle, Chekhov throws in a magic act for light entertainment, which Frances Fisher pulls off with aplomb. Meanwhile, there is an occasional, eerie sound heard in the distance, the cable of a mineshaft snapping, perhaps. Nobody knows, but we hear it, as do the characters onstage who all stop, mid-sentence, with silent apprehension that the sky just might be falling.

Molina’s Cockney Lopakhin, so marvelously self-possessed, even in torment, is in a different production from the comparatively mannered ensemble, which winds up looking “Chekhovian” — a lugubrious strain to appear light and spontaneous in dark circumstances. The best productions of Chekhov I’ve seen have been acted by ensembles that have worked together for years, or have at least rehearsed for months, economically impossible in our commercial and regional theaters, unless a producer imports such a company. This did occur on Broadway 10 years ago with Moscow’s glorious Sovremmenik Theater and their productions of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov might fare well in L.A. with an imaginative director working with some of our better resident ensembles in the smaller theaters that can afford to take their time: Pacific Resident Theater, A Noise Within, Actors’ Gang and Theater of NOTE, just for starters.

I suggested to the students in the world theater course I’m teaching at Cal State San Bernardino that they might benefit from driving in to L.A. to see the Taper’s The Cherry Orchard. I told them about live theater, which four-fifths of them had never attended; and then about the Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, about whom five-sixths of them had never heard ; and, finally, I mentioned Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a play unfamiliar to almost everyone in the room.

After an hour, with the lure of extra credit and Center Theater Group’s remarkable $12 student group rate, 45 of them had signed up. Some wanted to bring spouses, significant others and even children. This was not due to any contagious love of theater or innate charisma on my part. It was the direct consequence of four words, like magnets, like gold: Annette Bening, Alfred Molina.

This got me to thinking: Would Center Theater Group have risked staging any play by Chekhov without the likes of Annette Bening and Alfred Molina? Of course not. Who would come? Would they risk doing Richard III or Henry V without stars? Probably not, but they could because Shakespeare draws crowds. He draws crowds in college productions across the country; he draws crowds from the power of bloodletting and sex, and betrayal and death. The Bard is a bawd, which is why he still belongs to us. Shakespeare is a superstar who casts his own light; I love Chekhov more, which is why it’s so difficult to see the good doctor standing in a doorway, watching the light fade.?

THE CHERRY ORCHARD | By ANTON CHEKHOV | Presented by Center Theater Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.,?dwntwn. | Through March 19 | (213) 628-2772

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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