by Anton Chekov
Translated by Richard Nelson
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Starring Kate Burton
Huntington Theatre Co. at BU Theatre
264 Huntington Ave. Boston / (617) 266-0800
Through Feb. 4

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The Huntington Theatre Company's current production, Anton Chekov's "The Cherry Orchard," directed by Nicholas Martin, while adequately cast, well-dressed, and fully staged has one problem. It feels like a translation. British playwright Richard Nelson's version of one of the foundations of modern drama seems distant. The words are accurate but filtered through an interpretation which views the action as entirely dependent on the completion of mourning by the central character. Mme. Ranevskaya, played efficiently by Kate Burton, is essentially the whole show. The rest of the action, except for a couple of scenes, seems filtered, as if seen through the twin scrims upon which views of the title image in different seasons are projected between acts. And Burton, despite her evident star quality, comes across more as Lyuba--her diminutive which further reduces the rest of the cast.

The last work of Chekov, which he thought of as a serious comedy, is more a novel than a drama. Martin's workmanlike direction doesn't lift it far enough from the page. Understanding the characters, which he and Burton have stressed, doesn't seem to help them real. Focusing her motivations on the loss of drowned young son limits the play. The distinguished cast, from Mark Blum as Gaev, her billiards-obsessed brother to BU/SFA sophomore Jennifer Rothenberg as Anya, her youngest daughter, play internally. Even such powerhouse performers as Will LeBow as Lopakin, the former peasant who's risen to wealth, Jeremiah Kissel as her impecunious neighbor Pishchik, or Sarah Hudnut who plays Varya, her dutiful adopted older daughter who's been holding the estate together in her mother's absence, are only fitfully of interest. The fact that no one gets what they want seems secondary. Strangely enough, these performances might be effective in an intimate 3/4 setting. On the Huntington's broad proscenium in front of Ralph Funicello's somewhat bland set, whose palette matches the leading lady's, the action fails to draw the audience in most of the time. Everyone seems to share the eternal detachment of Enver Gjokaj's Trofimov, the perennial student.

Moreover the physical production just isn't interesting enough. The layout of the nursery, where Acts One and Four occur, doesn't make sense, with double doors up right serving as the main entrance from outside while access to the rest of the mansion is upstage left. The traffic flow becomes a parade, which works early in the play and provides Burton with an applaudable entrance, but get clogged too often. Act Two, set outdoors next two an old graveyard, doesn't have a vista which includes a line of telegraph poles and the town in the distance as the author suggests, but displays rather a tangled birch forest and uses an entirely flat floor. It is effective for the philosophical romance between Anya and Trofimov but little else. Burton's confessional sprawled over an old grave marker becomes blatant. Act Three, which is supposed to include the ballroom and the drawing room, is curiously back in the nursery, so that the entire second half of Nelson's two part version is illogically in the same overlarge room. The idea of a ball is turned into an impromptu garden fete. Given the intent of the script, a more abstract treatment for all locations might have been better.

The lighting by Donald Holder predictably sufficient but Drew Levy's sound design is lacking. The only believable sound effect is the distant train; the famous snapping violin string and the sounds of trees being chopped are ineffective and the music choices uninspired. Robert Morgan's costumery effectively suggests Russia at the beginning of the 20th century and even the traditions of the Moscow Art Theater but does little more. The result of all this effort is suggest a production assembled for a summer festival with a large cast of apprentices and good actors jobbed in for the season. Martin's direction seems reduced to traffic management and attempts at humor. Nelson's script and interpretation shed no new light on the play and provides Burton with a role that doesn't take her beyond her recent television roles. Of course, the author didn't think Stanislavsky and his company got it right either, so the perfect production of "The Cherry Orchard" remains illusive.

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