Chekhov - played for laughs

Anton Chekhov, meet the Marx brothers. Chekhov, the brilliant Russian writer whose plays are steeped in ennui, futility, and a tragic symbolism, has been converted at times to a boffo sitcom writer in a new production of his classic ``The Cherry Orchard,'' now at Arena Stage. That's the same theater which is also doing an SRO version of the Marx brothers' zany comedy ``The Cocoanuts'' (see review coming Monday). Playing Chekhov's ``The Cherry Orchard'' for laughs may be some theatergoers' idea of a bad joke, but director Lucian Pintilie takes it seriously. He has company; Chekhov himself called it ``a comedy in four acts..., in places almost a farce.'' But Stanislavsky wrote to Chekhov that, although he might think he had written a comedy, ``The Cherry Orchard'' was, in fact, a tragedy.

Pintilie may be true to Chekhov's original intent, but Stanislavsky, who directed the very first production, was instinctively right in terms of the play's impact. It is a tragedy. Madame Ranevskaya, a spendthrift landowner, comes back from Europe to find that the cherry orchard she cherished as a child must be chopped down and the mansion she was raised in sold to pay her debts. ``The whole of Russia is our orchard...,'' says the perpetual student, Trofimov, predicting the revolution. ``It's perfectly clear that to begin to live in the present, we must first atone for our past....''

Pintilie's ``Cherry Orchard'' is innovative; it makes us rethink this Chekhov classic. But innovation sometimes interferes with fidelity in art, and this play is art. This production opens on what looks like a rehearsal, with a bare stone floor on which are scattered some children's furniture and a few toys. The characters scurry around, shout, carry on, play their lines for laughs; there are even a few pratfalls. At times, it's like a No"el Coward drawing room comedy.

Pintilie, a Romanian-born director with a lustrous reputation, is entitled to his novel approach. But making light of the characters and their plight destroys the compassion for these trapped people which is implicit in Chekhov's writing. When Lyubov says, ``My life makes no sense without the cherry orchard,'' it should be poignant, not laughable.

There are memorable moments: a scene in which a wheat field springs up on the stage set done by Radu Boruzescu, for instance. And there are interesting performances by Shirley Knight, full of an addled warmth as landowner Lyubov Ranevskaya; Tana Hicken as her frazzling stepdaughter, Varya; Stanley Anderson as the greedy merchant Lopakhin; and Henry Stram as Trofimov, the yearning student. The most Chekhovian performance of them all was given by W.Benson Terry as the butler, Firs, who conveyed the tragedy of the old order passing, edged with a bittersweet irony. Somewhere there's the sound of an ax striking a tree, and it isn't Chekhov's.

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