The Cherry Orchard ๐Ÿ˜” Theatre Review

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Written by Thelonia


A bunch of Russian Aristocrats are on the brink of destruction, and though their Cherry Orchard may be their salvation, they are too stuck in their ways to move with the times and adapt to the new social hierarchy, which no longer protects them at all costs. Though the Roundabout Theatre's production hints at an Americanized version of the Chekhov classic, this adaptation tries to play both fields in terms of tradition and innovation, and ends up a confusing jumble of times, places, and people, ultimately loosing the human pathos of the original play in its attempts to modernize.

The stage was a giant tree stump. Trรจs symbolique, Roundabout Theatre.

The Cherry Orchard is a Chekhov play that has endured for over a century since its first production in 1904. To keep the play relevant, particularly for non-Russian audiences, productions have gotten increasingly innovative with their use of modernization and their re-contextualization of what is essentially a very Russian story (with very Russian names). This production, staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company, tried through a wide variety of means and methods to make the play consumable for broad 21st century Americans. It did not go well.

But they have so many weird lights and tree chandeliers!
The Cherry Orchard is the story of a Russian Aristocratic Family that works hard at not working and ignoring their waning fortune, which leads to the eventual selling of the family's estate - including their eponymous Cherry Orchard. Meanwhile, they are also not dealing with the rise of what used to be a struggling underclass, most of whom are or are the children of, former serfs - oh, I mean, slaves.

Yes, though the original Russian play dealt with new socioeconomic relationships in 20th century Russia once serfdom (a system through which the peasant class could not own land, and had to live off their feudal lords' lands, which was abolished by Tsar Alexander II in 1861), this production seeks to Americanize these relations between the Aristocrats and Serfs by changing the Serfs to Slaves. It is as jarring as you'd expect. Indeed, this production casts an all-white cast as the Aristocratic family, while mixing black and white actors for the servants and townspeople.

And yes, that is as uncomfortable and out of left field as it may sound.
The play is also modernized in its language, thanks to Stephen Karam, who won a Tony last year for The Humans. It is a rather large change I am told, as the original has to be updated from its 1906 origins, which I didn't find quite as jarring as I have little to no knowledge of the original play,but those more familiar with Chekhov may not have the same reaction.

When it came to the overall feel of the production, it is difficult to say whether the main fault lay with the script, the actors, the direction, or the material at its core. The tone varies, the time and setting are similarly inconsistent (with the last scene inexplicably changing the costumes to modern day clothes), and the characters often seem awkward around each other (which really only works in the few instances where they are supposed to be).

It seems like a divisive choice for many critics was the portrayal of family matriarch Ranevskaya, played by Diane Lane, but honestly I hardly noticed her. Her character is very much a Blanche Dubois, a character whom I don't find particularly engaging either. In a way, with the character as she appears throughout the text, it doesn't seem like there was a way for Lane to truly shine, given the rather dull character she was given.

Considering their advertising revolves entirely around her, they better hope her character is engaging. AND YET.
Joel Grey's butler, Firs, outclasses everyone else easily, even while stumbling and mumbling his way throughout most of the play. His entrance received a round of applause, after which he proceeded to disappear for most of the rest of the play, although he did have the final scene to himself, for what has got to be one of the most out-of-nowhere depressing ends to a play I have ever seen.

While Lane recieves top billing and Joel Grey most of the audience's love, almost all of the immediate drama of the play is in the hands of the other characters, whose romantic and personal entanglements drive the action (with the larger issue of the family's ruin and the sale of the Cherry Orchard drama an ever present, but off-stage, threat). These romantic entanglements concern Ranavskaya's daughters, their suitors, and the maid Dunyasha (and her suitors).

Harold Perineau, who plays Lopakhin (Varya's planned suitor - though that plan was made by everyone else but him), has many impressive titles on his resume, but to most millennials, he will be most recognizable to some as Mercutio from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

Aka: the best part of doing Romeo and Juliet in middle school.
Lopakhin is an overworked business man and the son of a former serf who keeps trying to help Ranevskaya's family, only to get rebuffed at every turn because of the family's commitment to "the way things were". Throughout most of the play, he plays the straight man to an increasingly willfully ignorant Ranevskaya, with one notable exception: when he announces he has bought the Cherry Orchard for himself, he breaks into a dance alone, letting loose and dancing in a modern style, a strange stylistic choice on the part of the director which leaves the audience, like the heart-broken family onstage, staring in confused horror.

The daughters, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger (who plays the uptight and repressed Varya), has been in a great number of Broadway shows that I have not seen, but does a fine job at her sort of one-note character, and Tavi Gevinson (who plays waifish Anya), who I did once seen on Scream Queens, not that I really remembered her from it, does a similarly adequate job.

To be fair, I remember very little from Scream Queens in general.
They, like most of the cast, deliver their lines in either a maniacal or sedate tone, with most scenes plodding along through the hoops and wheels of a family drama. Most of the time it feels like we're going nowhere, though whether that is the delivery or the material is difficult to say. As the cast stumble their way through their lines (both literally and figuratively), there is an unease to their clumsiness: a perpetual game of "did they mean to do that?" in which no one wins.

There are many speeches about the nature of love and the socio-economic state of Russia, though. Yay!
Really though, if they wanted to make The Cherry Orchard, there is an easy solution: the production would just need to completely commit to the American setting and set it in the years post-Civil War. In the same way as the abolition of Serfdom changed socio-economic relations in Russia in the 19th century and beyond, so did the abolition of slavery. It would allow American audiences to do away with the sometimes confusing Russian names (only the two daughters, Anya and Varya, come easy to non-Russian viewers), and would eliminate weird tonal dissonance between American and Russian histories and writings, making the whole less tone-deaf and trying to play all sides like this production is.

The Roundabout Theatre has had some definite hits and some definite misses. Unfortunately, The Cherry Orchard might be in the second category. But that doesn't mean there isn't potential in an American version,  but this is not a play that works in halfs: one must commit to the new, or one must stick to tradition. Anything in between comes off as messy and disjointed in tone and setting. There is a Cherry Orchard for Modern America, it's just not this one.

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