Translating Chekhov Anew

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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 5, 2000. All rights reserved.

Review: Emily Mann’s `The Cherry Orchard’

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

It may seem an odd analogy to compare America’s glorious,

awesome, and now almost extinct, motion picture palaces with the vast

estates of "The Cherry Orchard," arguably, Anton Chekhov’s

greatest play. Yet the McCarter Theater production that opened last

Friday, adapted and directed by Emily Mann, set me to thinking along

just these lines. As a member of the Theater Historical Society of

America, I can understand why those huge and extravagant (usually

3,000 to 6,000 seats) movie "presentation houses," that required

a permanent staff of 100 to 200 souls, became victims of cultural

and economic changes of the times, just as I understand the fate of

the lavish home and wasteful household of Madame Ranevskaya and her

cherry orchard.

You won’t see any lavish decorative excess — not so much as a

hint of cherry trees in bloom — in Mann’s staging of "The

Cherry Orchard." What we see through the large opaque panels that

are the most arresting conceit of designer Adrianne Lobel’s coldly

minimalist set, is an impressionistic drawing of tall grass and a

single non-flowering tree. What we hear with clarity is Mann’s own

adaptation of the text and its artful interpretation by an excellent

company. The resultant vision is as good as it is sometimes puzzling.

Like all great plays that address universal themes, "The Cherry

Orchard" finds a way to communicate — sometimes a very personal

way. Yes, I am sad when a grand and elegant theater is razed for a

shopping mall or parking garage, but letting go of the old to prepare

for the new is often the only way to survive in human society.

If Mann has set herself free from previous Chekhov translations, there

will always be arguments that can be raised regarding certain choices,

none of which harm, and some which, indeed, enhance, what is originally

Russian in sentiment and style. And even as Mann’s actors are set

within a stage space that offers little in the way of traditional

ambiance, they still succeed in creating a world that resonates with

honesty, humor, and hubris.

Presiding over this play as her character does over her household

is Jane Alexander, as Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya. As the aristocratic

matriarch who is unwilling to be practical or even to prepare for

the inevitable, Alexander spins through her disappearing universe

with an elegance and an eloquence that is both rapturous and riveting.

If ever this role was embraced with a more graceful poignancy, I can’t

recall it. However irksome it may be to watch Ranevskaya respond so

recklessly in the face of disaster, Alexander makes it possible for

us to respond sympathetically. Tossing money about as if it were as

abundant as the cherry blossoms in her orchard, and exuding enough

charm to fool herself as well as those in her charge, Alexander’s

Ranevskaya lives a life framed by romantic delusions.

Refusing to allow her estate to be turned into a summer

colony, and unable to comprehend that her extravagances are destroying

her family, Ranevskaya proclaims and reaffirms her unbending aristocracy.

Restraining any impulse to overdo the grandiose blandishments and

flurries that can make the Ranevskaya character simply wearisome,

Alexander, instead, allows the forced smiles and half-hearted regrets

of a wasteful life to act as her reflection of a woman as useless

as her cherry orchard. Alexander is notably stunning clad in a progression

of regal attire by designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser.

While you will not find old world opulence permeating the ether surrounding

the characters, Mann brings a caustic, contemporary edge to the proceedings

by having the cast who support Alexander’s central character reflect

none too subtly the abrasive nature of a new society and changing

times. This may have been Chekhov’s intention. But Mann clarifies

the somewhat loose structure of the play by guiding the actors into

the creation of mostly funny, flesh-and-blood people.

Yes, Mann also makes the play fun. There is never an instant when

you feel you are in the presence of an antique or relic. Even though

the whole family is in a precarious situation, they are as nutty and

delightful a parade of eccentrics as can be found in traditional farce.

John Glover, as Gayev, appears quite dapper with his long hair, red

tie, and velveteen suit. He may appear to be slightly balmy as he

plays billiards with an imaginary cue and balls, but his endless speechifying

is done within a consummately "well-bred" intention to amuse

and to survive with elegance and dignity.

Although she is required to be almost perpetually angry, Caroline

Stefanie Clay, as Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya, makes us laugh

at her attempts at coquettishness and makes us cry at her frustration

with Avery Brooks’s grandly eloquent Lopakhin. As the ex-serf who

now owns the property and Varya’s heart, Brooks gives an audibly resonating

performance in which he seems, at times, as preoccupied with the sound

of his voice as he is with his business affairs. Nevertheless, Brooks

unquestionably captures the humanity and humor of Lopakhin.

As Trofimof, the perpetual student-prophet who, having discovered

the significance of life, proceeds to bore listeners with his lectures,

Rob Campbell affects an appropriate nervousness and clumsy deportment.

Jefferson Mays is comically detestable as the young valet whose roguish

eyes and roving hands are notable for the exploration of the delectably

flirtatious Dunyasha, played delightfully by Kate Goehring.

As Firs, the weathered, 87-year-old valet, Roger Robinson adds enough

spunk to his custodial role to suggest that he might yet survive another

winter. Barbara Sukowa invests the role of Charlotta, the governess,

with a dimension of isolated wisdom that defines wry insight, often

without words. Even through the artistry of a magic act (quite well

done), Charlotta acts as a beacon by which we can see the love and

intimacy as well as the futility that this family shares.

Eschewing the customary stage atmospherics of time and place, and

punctuating the action with the ghostly appearance of young Grisha

(Benjamin Neumann), Ranevskaya’s dead son, Mann creates her own admirable

atmospherics and dramatic impression.

— Simon Saltzman

The Cherry Orchard, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Through April 16; $27 to $39; discounts for age

25 and under; and same-day rush.

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Translating Chekhov Anew

By developing her own adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard" script, Emily

Mann has made a heroic effort to imbue Chekhov’s portrait of

19th-century Russian aristocracy with new vitality. Far be it from me

(with no knowledge of Russian at all) to suggest that Mann’s version

may be more or less informed than others, but I’d like to offer an

example of how certain choices do affect our understanding of the

play, in particular its closing lines.

The play closes on the figure of Firs, the elderly, lifelong valet,

who has been heedlessly forgotten and left alone in the closed and

locked estate. In all cases he delivers these final lines and lies

motionless on the stage.

From Mann’s adaptation, currently onstage at McCarter: "They left.

They’ve forgotten about me. . . Never mind. . . I’ll sit here for a

while. . . I’ll lie down. I don’t have any strength left. I have

nothing left, absolutely nothing. . . Bungler!"

From Constance Garnett’s version (in my 1950s edition): "Locked. They

have gone. . . They have forgotten me. I’ll sit here a bit. Life has

slipped by as though I hadn’t lived. I’ll lie down a bit. There’s no

strength in you, nothing left, you — all gone. Ech! I’m good for

nothing."

You may decide for yourself which of these two versions you find

more heartbreaking. While both are defensible and dependable, they

also provide a lesson on the difficulty of finding out whether a

character says what he means, or means what he is says. (Thank you

Lewis Carroll.)

To pursue this a little further, I asked Joe Patenaude, a Drew

University theater professor, for his thoughts. Could Patenaude, who

has directed a number of productions of "The Cherry Orchard," supply

me with any other translations that might suggest a different

inference to the same lines of Chekhov’s Russian text?

He offers these: From Elisaveta Fen’s translation, she lived in Russia

in the 1920s and published her translation in London in 1951. She is

well regarded by Russian folks at Drew who consider hers a solid

translation without much "adaptation."

Firs: "You haven’t got any strength left, nothing’s left,

nothing. . . Oh, you. . . you’re daft!"

From Jean Claude van Italie, the Andre Serban production of 1977 with

Irene Worth: Firs: You have no strength left — nothing. . . Ach,

go on — you . . . Nincompoop, good for nothing.

From Ann Dunnigan’s 1964 adaptation with an introduction by Robert

Brustein. Russian scholars at Drew consider this a viable, quality

translation of Chekhov. Firs: There’s no strength left in you,

nothing’s left, nothing. . . Ach, you. . . adlepate!"

From Robert Brustein’s own adaptation for the 1992 ART production with

Claire Bloom. Firs: "There’s no strength left in you; nothing,

nothing. Ech, you. . . good-for-nothing!"

From Paul Schmidt’s translation published in a collection of

1997. He was a well-respected translator, particularly revered by

actors. Firs: No strength left, nothing left, not a thing. . . Oh you.

You young flibbertigibbet."

Patenaude offers these further comments: "It seems like van Italie and

Schmidt are the most free adapters, and Fen and Dunigan seemed to be

trying to be as faithful as possible to Chekhov. Brustein was trying

to make it fresh where necessary, better for contemporary American

actors, but we left his alone in these two areas without changing him,

I’m sure, because it seemed close enough to the Russian for Carol

Ueland, the Drew Russian professor who adapted the Brustein script for

my production."

After careful deliberation, my response is, Bravo to Mann for

"bungler," as the word of choice that best illuminates Firs gradual

comprehension of his careless abandonment and the rupture of the

social order that has guided his life.

— Simon Saltzman


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