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Connecticut Theater

"The Cherry Orchard"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so the saying goes. And surely Anton Chekhov’s deeply moving play, “The Cherry Orchard,” does not need fixing. Granted that it must be translated and adapted for English-speaking audiences, but its specific mood, time and place—namely, the turn-of-the-century Russian countryside—should be respected.

Such cautionary reminders are ignored in the adaptation by Alison Carey, now on stage at Yale Rep’s University Theatre. In fact, Carey and director Bill Rauch have played fast and loose with the play, turning it upside down. The magic touch of Rauch, so effective in an earlier Yale production, “Macbeth/Medea/Cinderella,” does not work this time around.

Unlike Chekhov’s original piece, this version moves in different time frames from one continent to another. Here is innovation for its own sake and to no purpose. There is always the temptation, in today’s theater world, to put a modern spin on a classic, striving for relevance and a new approach that will engage the audience. But such radical changes should make sense.

In this Yale production of the Chekhov classic, confusion is the keyword. For starters, the program lists all the characters, not with their true names, but with their attributes. For instance, the maid Dunyasha is listed merely as “the maid who uses a powder puff.” At best, it is difficult to sort out characters in any Russian play, without imposing this whimsical touch.

Secondly, all the characters, in the second act, trade in their Russian names for an English version. And turn-of-the-century costumes are replaced by modern attire, as the 1904 play moves into modern times. The language is suddenly loaded with modern American slang, such as “hitting the books” and “robbed you blind” or “I was only kidding.” Shopping carts, coke bottles, and pizza deliveries are much in evidence. This leap into the 21st century has a jarring effect without bringing new insights to “The Cherry Orchard.”

Nonetheless, this production does have its compensations, particularly in its lead player. Lisa Harrow is a national treasure, turning Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (later to be known as Olivia) into a vulnerable, doomed heroine. Harrow is incapable of a false note, this Yale production notwithstanding, as she moves through the story. This lady has just returned to her country estate, having dissipated her fortune while living in Paris. Both she and her feckless brother are incapable of managing their affairs, and the result is that their estate (with its beloved cherry orchard) must be sold to pay off their debts. The peasant-turned-entrepreneur Lopakhin buys them out. Chekhov’s usual themes are apparent even in this distorted version of “The Cherry Orchard”: the breakdown between classes as the old order crumbles, the longing for the sophisticated city life, the limitations of country life.

Harrow is supported by a competent cast, with particularly good performances from Ruben Garfias as Lopakhin (later known as Guillermo), Patrick Garner as the brother Leonid (later known as Leonard), Laura Odeh as Anya (later known as Anna), and Jesse J. Perez as Petya (later known as Peter). And under Bill Rauch’s direction, the crowd scenes, both on and off stage, work well. A party scene, where dancers cavort in the background, is particularly effective. A word of praise, too, goes to Shigeru Yaji for the charming, romantic costumes that clothe the ladies in the earlier era.

But, over all, this valiant effort to reinterpret a Russian classic does not work. Neither the gifted Lisa Harrow nor the brilliant Anton Chekhov gets fair treatment this time around.

-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 13, 2005

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