Earlier this year, in a review of the Taper’s Cherry Orchard with Alfred Molina and Annette Bening, I raised the possibility that Chekhov no longer speaks to our age — not because Chekhov isn’t one of the world’s grandest and most profound dramatists, but because in our age, a kind of decorum that lies at the heart of Chekhov’s plays has disintegrated beyond recognition. Language has increasingly become an instrument of competition rather than investigation, devolving from argumentation and exchange to spin and rant. Our country’s polarized values are reflected in our words. Just scan the radio dial for an hour and listen to the sounds of our culture, the music, the primal cadences, the songs and sentimentality wrapped around the warlike drumbeat of one sales pitch after the next, whether for products or hearts or minds. The truth in all its complexity is beside the point, which is the victory, the sale. This is the drumbeat that keeps us warm at night, that puts gas in our tanks, that keeps our shopping malls stocked and keeps us coming back for more.
When Chekhov’s characters ruminate and pontificate, earnestly, ridiculously, comically, often behind the gentle strains of an offstage orchestra or a marching band, the tone is so far removed from what we’ve become, it sounds almost unbearably sad. After that review of The Cherry Orchard, I received a few hostile letters in rabid defense of Chekhov, as though I’d been attacking him (I hadn’t). The letters proved me right: We’re a nation of warriors, far more attuned to conquest than conversation.
Bart DeLorenzo, the artistic director of Evidence Room, told me that he wanted to do a production of The Cherry Orchard that could demonstrate the immediacy to Los Angeles of Chekhov’s gentle drama about Lyubov Ranyevskaya, a bankrupt, spendthrift aristocrat who returns to her provincial Russian estate from Paris to put her affairs in order. A businessman named Lopakhin — the uneducated, perpetually snubbed grandson of a serf — ends up buying the defaulted property in an auction, with the idea of chopping down the estate’s cherished cherry orchard and converting it into rental properties for tourists. Lopakhin is the only realist in this long, winding play about beautiful dreamers and the turning of an age.
It’s no secret to those who follow such things that DeLorenzo has been turned out of his theater, and he’s taking the theater’s name and identity, Evidence Room, with him. (The Cherry Orchard is his farewell production.) DeLorenzo served as director, curator and impresario at E.R.’s various locations since the early ’90s. The current incarnation of the theater on Beverly Boulevard had, until recently, an executive team of four artists, once friends with shared goals, who, except for DeLorenzo, shared ownership in the building. After an irreconcilable interpersonal dispute that had been brewing for years, DeLorenzo was forced out.
After speaking with DeLorenzo and with Alicia Adams (the person primarily responsible for his departure), it’s clear that no driving philosophical, artistic or administrative principle justifies such a parting, no revolution on the horizon. Rather, a series of personal rebuffs, along with some hubris, has led to a situation where neither can stand being in the same room. This is heartbreaking folly, since, under DeLorenzo, Evidence Room had evolved into a community magnet for like-minded artists and patrons, and there’s not yet a replacement plan in sight. Evidence Room was more than a theater that put on plays. It was an arts center with a bar, a lobby that could hold 100 people, and a defining aesthetic. This was all DeLorenzo’s doing, and how few leaders we have with any vision, work ethic and attention span to actually accomplish something. Evidence Room was exactly the kind of hub L.A. theater needs, a watering hole for a parched community, and you’d think such a need would be sufficient to keep two contrary people in the same room. In theater, as in politics, when two players can’t be in the same room, nobody wins.
It’s in this context that DeLorenzo has staged The Cherry Orchard as a group of actors putting on a play in quasimodern dress (costumes by Barbara Lempel) and eventually leaving the room, tossing cardboard boxes over an outdoor railing through the open back door. It presumes, somewhat high-mindedly, that the end of Evidence Room is akin to the end of an epoch. Were there immigration marches, or some reference to them, going on outside, the philosophical parallel might have had a more apt sense of proportion. But what makes DeLorenzo’s immediate situation so exasperating is not that his ouster is an epic matter. It’s that its underlying causes are so damnably petty, they diminish all of us. Nonetheless, DeLorenzo plugs into a certain personal fury that gives pertinence to Chekhov’s saga of bankruptcy and unrequited love.
This fury manifests itself in the framing concept of the maid, Dunyasha (Ryan Templeton), and the valet, Yasha (the looming Will Watkins). Templeton plays Dunyasha with the mania and physical dexterity of an electric toy plugged into a high-voltage outlet. Her gestures are larger and faster than anyone else’s, her voice is squeakier, and her affair with Yasha — which breaks the heart of her clumsy suitor (Michael Cassady) — takes on the physical quality of a living comic-book strip. Meanwhile, Dunyasha and Yasha perform a series of soft-shoe dance routines between scenes — a nod to the vaudeville that Chekhov so emulated, which later influenced Samuel Beckett for similar reasons having to do with puppets on strings wondering what exactly they’re here for.
This could, or should, be moving, but there’s too much anger in this production, and it’s too messy to capture Chekhov’s transcendent wisdom. There are, however, some beautiful, lugubrious moments, such as when a group of characters stares into the horizon and one of them announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the sun has just set.”
The Cherry Orchard is the stage equivalent of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a melding of hauntingly beautiful motifs into a single theme that keeps returning and swelling until interrupted by the timpani clap of a thunderstorm. When the theme re-emerges after the storm, it’s slightly refreshed, but also slightly broken. And if the play’s musicality is not as skillfully played as a symphony, it melts into a generalized wash of comic and pastoral moods and faux moodiness.
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Don Oscar Smith is a lovely, wry actor, but his Lopakhin barely cuts beneath the obvious surfaces of affability and frustration; local legend Tom Fitzpatrick walks too gamely in the footsteps of Ranyevskaya’s brother, Leonid, so that when he arrives sobbing with the news of the estate’s sale, it comes off as artifice.
Leo Marks plays the student Trofimov, searching for spiritual meaning amid the mire, with such neurotic, earnest gravity that he becomes one of the production’s two anchors. The other is Maria O’Brien as the dithering matriarch, Ranyevskaya, parading in clingy dresses and a high-pitched voice in direct counterpoint to Bening’s grandiloquent dame at the Taper. By Act 3, her face has absorbed an expression of such poignant confusion and panic, eyes brimming with tears, that her performance starts to tug at the bones. Never mind the fading Russian aristocracy: O’Brien has all the twitches, the bursts of anger and perfectly modulated bewilderment to make the collapse of a theater on Beverly Boulevard seem like something almost tragic.
DeLorenzo’s production is a product of his circumstances, which is a product of our times, in which people rattle AK-47s and storm out of rooms. We’re all too noisy and too busy for much meaningful exchange. When listening at the lip of a wishing well for truths from the deep, we need to stand side by side, quietly and still.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD | By ANTON CHEKHOV, translated by PAUL SCHMIDT | Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. | Through July 2 | (213) 381-7118.