ANTON CHEKHOV WAS AMONG THE THEATER'S earliest ecologists. Two of his major works use trees and their disappearance from rural Russia at the turn of the 20th century as a central motif. Uncle Vanya -- a variant on the playwright's earlier work, The Wood Demon -- concerns a doctor named Astrov, not unlike Chekhov himself, to whom the playwright gives an extended soliloquy bemoaning the disappearance of the forests and its disastrous fallout on the local flora and fauna. He delivers this passionate speech to a woman he's smitten with, as she tries to contain her yawns.
In his later, and probably greatest play, The Cherry Orchard, the threat of having a local landmark, a beloved cherry grove, decimated and subdivided into tourist villas hangs over the play's bankrupt and eccentric landowners like a cloud. That cloud drives the play's action, which explains why the action doesn't seem to go anywhere. After all, a cloud's qualities lie not in its ability to propel, but to drench. And The Cherry Orchard is really the story of a gathering storm, and the utter inability of the drama's inhabitants to find their umbrellas, or even to look for them, or even to acknowledge the need for them. (At the time the play was written, the Russian Revolution was already fomenting.)
I say all this, not in the interest of some exegesis, but to support the proposition that in order to fathom the mystery of how Chekhov's very difficult plays can be interpreted a century after they were first produced, it's not a bad idea to turn to the playwright, to finds hints from his plays and from what's recorded about his life. This is not in the interest of trying to reproduce the Moscow Art Theater's productions of his work over 100 years ago, but to find an essence, and how that essence translates to a different continent and a new millennium.
The problem with Adrian Giurgea's staging of The Cherry Orchard (with Paul Schmidt's fine translation at Glendale's A Noise Within) lies in the director's inability to ensnare that admittedly ethereal essence, a task which could be likened to Brecht's closing line in his adaptation of Edward II, "like trying to catch the wind with a sieve."
We know that Chekhov was not an aristocrat by birth, but among his ideals were what he took to be the aristocratic qualities of grace, elegance and compassion, qualities he rarely saw while trudging on horseback across Russia's muddy trenches to save patients from the pox and other epidemics. When Chekhov, at the Moscow Art Theater, was asked to explain to Stanislavsky's cast the character of Uncle Vanya's Dr. Astrov -- also a man enduring inclement weather and shoddy roads to aid the sick -- he gave the quizzical yet illuminating reply: "Astrov always wears a silk tie."
We also know that Chekhov wrote the central female roles in his greatest plays for his wife, Olga Andreyevna Knipper-Chekhova, a leading actress with the Moscow Art Theater who, though very emotional, was known to avoid melodrama and hysterics both in her personal life and on the stage. Chekhov wrote repeatedly how he loathed people who rant -- probably the majority of people surrounding him. Not surprisingly, the most despicable character he ever created was Natasha in Three Sisters, a volatile hysteric.
GIURGEA'S PRODUCTION STARTS TO GO SOUR with Deborah Strang's emotive interpretation of the play's lead, Lyubòv Ranévskaya, home from Paris, destitute after having been robbed and dumped by a suitor. That Strang's swooning is so unwavering serves as an emblem of Giurgea's treatment of the play as a gallery of aspects rather than characters: Erika Ackerman's maid seldom stops giggling; Richard Soto's cad-valet, Yàsha, carries a constant smirk. As Ranévskaya's brother, Gáyev, Robertson Dean offers a muscular, crumpled and appealing presence, though he ends the play emotionally much where he started.
Only Ken Grantham's richly sweet neighbor/ hanger-on, Pishchik, seems to undergo much of a change as the rain starts falling, though that's overtly in the plot, as he ironically strikes it rich in a circumstance not of his making.
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Danila Korogodsky's set makes intriguing use of a neck-high doll's house that, when placed behind a translucent curtain, doubles as a scenic backdrop. Maybe when the old servant, Firs (William Dennis Hunt), gets locked into the thing, Giurgea intends a nod to Ibsen. I'm not really sure.
In Varya, Michael Cacoyannis' recent, very atmospheric film adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, the screen is flush with tender white cherry blossoms, hanging like butterflies on brittle twigs, as Vladimir Ashkenazy plunks out delicate classical piano accompaniment. Aside from its conspicuous beauty, the image paints a visceral picture of what the aristocratic orchard actually means -- its fragile grandeur, and how those twigs and limbs might well have been used to beat the serfs in earlier years. In that image resides the play's essence, its paradox, the significance of a changing epoch and what the sounds of the ax really mean -- particularly as the destruction has been contracted by the merchant son of a slave.
Such a central concept, in whatever form it takes, goes wanting in Giurgea's production. Perhaps the oddest element is Daniel Reichert's nouveau-riche merchant, in a performance considerably more sensible, dignified and aristocratic than the old guard whom he will soon be replacing. This leaves no room for paradox about the end of the orchard, only an unsentimental affirmation of capitalism, and the unchallenged logic of chopping down the stupidly wasteful trees.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD | By ANTON CHEKHOV | Presented by A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | Through December 8