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Huntington Theatre's The Cherry Orchard

TV�s Dr. Ellis Grey, Kate Burton, Stars in Chekhov's Masterpiece

By: Charles Giuliano - 01/11/2007

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Kate Burton stars in the Chekhov play. Eric Antoniou photo.
Kate Burton stars in the Chekhov play. Eric Antoniou photo.
Burton and her "daughters" Jessica Rothenberg, left and, Sarah Hudnut.
Burton and her "daughters" Jessica Rothenberg, left and, Sarah Hudnut.
Burton stars as Madame Ranevskaya the extravagant aristocrat.
Burton stars as Madame Ranevskaya the extravagant aristocrat.
The selfmade man Lopakin, Will Below, has a plan to save the family from ruin.
The selfmade man Lopakin, Will Below, has a plan to save the family from ruin.
The Governess, Joyce Von Patten supplies some magic. Production photos by T. Charles Erikson.
The Governess, Joyce Von Patten supplies some magic. Production photos by T. Charles Erikson.
In the Cherry Orchard with a stunning set by Ralph Funicello.
In the Cherry Orchard with a stunning set by Ralph Funicello.
Tea is served.
Tea is served.
A last moment in the soon to be razed mansion.
A last moment in the soon to be razed mansion.

 

The Cherry Orchard

Huntington Theatre Company

By Anton Chekhov, Translation by Richard Nelson, Directed by Nicholas Martin, Scenic Design, Ralph Funicello, Costumes, Robert Morgan, Lighting, Donald Holder, Sound, Drew Levy, Music, Michael Friedman, Casting, Jay Binder/ Jack Bowdan, Production stage manager, Stephen M. Kaus, Stage Manager, Ellen Ryan Kelly. Cast: Ranevskaya, Kate Burton, Gaev, Mark Blum, Lopakin, Will Below, Anya, Jessica Rothenberg, Varya, Sarah Hudnut, Pischik, Jeremiah Kissel, Charlotta Ivanova, Joyce Van Patten, Firs, Dick Latessa, Trofimov, Enver Gjokaj, Yephikhodov, Jeremy Beck, Dunyasha, Jessica Dickey, Yasha, Gene Farber, Tramp, Robert Bonotto, Station Master, Patrick Lynch.

Through February 4. http://www.huntingtontheatre.org Box Office: 617 266 0800 Fax 617 421 9674

 

    The final and arguably greatest work by Anton Chekhov "The Cherry Orchard" premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre on July 2, 1904 several months before he died. While he did not live to see the turmoil of the Russian Revolution of 1917 one may view this bittersweet comedy, and the allegory of the selling for debt of the family mansion and the renowned cherry orchard of the heroine Ranevskaya, Kate Burton, as the demise of the Ancien Regime of the old aristocracy. The rise of a bourgeois former peasant and eventual new owner, Lopakin, Will LeBow, is a signifier for the gathering storm of catastrophic social change.

    But in the late Czarist days of Chekhov's whimsical tale of pathos and change the magical spell of the aristocracy, however jaded and bankrupt, still prevails. Even though Lopakin, literally, can buy and sell them, he is still in awe of their nobility and more inclined to kiss the frayed hem of Ranevskaya's ball gown than to crush her under his heel with growing financial power. Repeatedly, he presents to her a sound business plan of leveling the renowned cherry orchard and selling it off in lots for summer cottages to a rising middle class. This would pay off debts and cancel the impeding auction of the family estate and its great house. It would allow for a steady income stream and keep a part of the estate in the hands of the family. As a part of the plans for the future she would like for the upwardly mobile Lopakin to marry her adopted daughter Yasha, Gene Farber, the housekeeper who will have an uncertain future once the estate is sold and the house is razed.

 

    While Lopakin's proposition makes perfect sense Ranevskaya is too ensnared by her own demons to enact such pragmatic action. It is all too subliminally parallel to the many decisive actions that Czar Nicholas Alexander II might have taken to avoid the inevitable Revolution. The aristocracy was too embedded in tradition and delusions of power and privilege to concede to the needs of a changing world to which they were incapable of adapting. While chaos reigned about them they preferred to dress for tea served from the old family samovar by fading  retainers such as the ancient and wonderfully wise and droll Firs, Dick Latessa. Rather than face reality the family stages a ball with refreshments and musicians they cannot afford. In their world of credit what is a little more debt? Down to her last Rubles she is chided by her daughter Anya, Jessica Rothenberg, but can't refrain from giving a gold coin to a scruffy beggar when she can't find a coin of lesser value in a nearly empty purse.

 

    As befits such a great play there are layers upon layers of back story. It has been five years since Ranevskaya last visited the family estate. She has been brought home from Paris and an ailing lover who both needs and robbed from her. Initially she fled the home when a son drowned there and her husband died. It is unclear whether her affair with a scoundrel began before or after the demise of her spouse. Following the custom of the day we presume that it was an arranged marriage for security and social position. Just as she aspires for her daughters Anya, in love with a perpetual student, philosopher and dreamer (hope of the New Russia?) Trofimov,  Enver Gjokaj, and  Varya. Surely Ranevskaya might live quite well on her means were she capable of adjusting an extravagant lifestyle. But in this haunting and melancholy premonition of the Revolution, like the old aristocracy, she was too set in her ways. The eventual auction of the estate to Lopakin doesn't really solve her problems so much as allow for a  return to Paris there to live a bit longer on the fading glory of the past. After the imminent Revolution how many White Russian aristocrats would end up as head waiters in elegant Parisian restaurants?

 

    This is a wonderful, classic and poetic production at the Huntington quite firmly anchored by Kate Burton and superbly paced under the direction of Nicholas Martin. It is little wonder that Burton adjusted a demanding schedule to jump at the chance to star in this role. Apparently she majored in Russian studies before pursuing acting at Yale. She brings just the right mix of pathos, matriarchal power and authority, grief and ennui to one of theatres greatest female roles. Her presence dominates this production, even when she is not on stage, but with a perfectly deft and light touch. It is understandable that she opted to just let fate run its course rather than intervene and have on her conscience the legacy of ordering the destruction of the famed cherry orchard; a signifier of all that was gracious and glorious about the Old Russia. Even though, as Lopakin darkly indicates, her ancestors routinely beat and abused their serfs. But Chekhov is more chiar than oscuro. The dark side would come later, actually, hard on the heels of the Cherry Orchard.

 

    The cast was generally superb with special notice to the always terrific Boston mainstay Will Lebow. Who would ever forget his deep, resonant voice with its personality and character? He brings something special to every part we have enjoyed over the past dozen years in the company of the American Repertory Theatre. In a minor role Joyce Van Patten literally brought magic to Charlotta Ivanova the governess. The daughters were effective including the pretty, hopeful, ingénue Jessica Rothenberg, an undergraduate at Boston University with great promise, while the spinsterish Sarah Hudnut touched us deeply with her frustrated longing for security and marriage. The intelligent and tasteful direction of Nicholas Martin brought out all of the fine detail of this richly nuanced, classic play.  Now through February 4 be sure to enjoy theatre at its best.

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