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Peter Brook and the Fruits of 'Cherry Orchard'

February 14, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN

NEW YORK — There is no one right way to stage a classic. It all depends on the play, the director, the actors and the times. After a period of stuffy Shakespearean productions, it may be necessary to stand "Hamlet" on its head so that the audience can really see it.

That's not Peter Brook's approach to "The Cherry Orchard" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (actually at an old movie house on the next block, the Majestic Theatre). It would be hard to say what his approach is. The viewer comes out feeling that he has experienced Chekhov's play, not an eminent director's reading of it.

This is an illusion. A director of Brook's power will encourage his actors to make their own choices, but he will have led them to those choices, like a subtle parent encouraging his children's career plans. This "Cherry Orchard" displays Brook's position on Chekhov as effectively as an overtly avant-garde staging would.

Its setting is avant-garde. Brook dispenses with the usual furniture and birch trees. Instead he covers over the playing space of "The Mahabharata" with carpets, rugs and pillows. This becomes Madame Ranevskaya's home: the one that will be up for auction in August, together with its adjoining cherry orchard, unless Madame Ranevskaya (called Lyubov in this production) starts taking her money problems seriously.

Now visualize the Majestic. Fifty years ago it was a movie palace. It is now an arrested ruin. But there's nothing dank or forbidding about it. Its warmth and its faded colors--especially the reds--have the weathered feeling of an old mission church.

Another thing that makes this "Cherry Orchard" individual is its variety of accents. As Lyubov, Natasha Parry (Mrs. Peter Brook) has a French accent. That's fine, since the play starts with Lyubov returning home from Paris. But Erland Josephson (as Lyubov's brother, Gaev) comes from Stockholm. And Brian Dennehy (as the suddenly rich merchant, Lopakhin) is clearly from the United States. An odd mix of voices for a play about one family.

Another eccentricity: Brook plays "The Cherry Orchard" without intermission. The theater's curved, padded benches are comfortable enough, but the viewer grows restive during the show's third and last hour. As with "The Mahabharata," Brook feels that a certain amount of discomfort intensifies the viewer's participation in the play. Not in my experience.

For all these innovations, this is a traditional "Cherry Orchard." Brook wants to explore Chekhov's characters and their situation, not to chain them to a univocal concept, such as: This is a play about neurotics, or: This is a play about money. If a main theme emerges, it will be because the playwright put it there.

I found no main theme, and didn't miss it. I did find an attitude toward the play. Chekhov's notebooks are full of impatience about the kind of people in "The Cherry Orchard," but the feeling here is that they are doing the best they can with the cards they've been dealt, and are to be forgiven and even celebrated for their courage.

There were subsidiary themes. One was: Not Listening. The old servant, Firs (Roberts Blossom) is too deaf to hear the family leave the house at the end of the play. This will cost him his life. Lyubov won't hear of the cherry orchard's being split up for vacation villas. This costs her her estate.

Another theme: Not Speaking. Lyubov's adopted daughter Varya (Stephanie Roth) desperately wants Lopakhin to propose to her, and Lopakhin has nothing against it. Yet on their last meeting all they can do is talk about the weather, until it's too late to say anything but goodby.

Why? Chekhov doesn't explain it. His job is to record behavior, not interpret it. Brook's actors take a similar tack with their characters. They don't edit them. They don't try to make them more consistent than they are.

Some play with more skill than others. In this sense it's not a particularly well-balanced ensemble. But the individual quality is almost always right. Kate Mailer, for instance, plays Dunyasha, a healthy young servant who thinks it's aristocratic to have fainting spells. Mailer's line readings are a little green, but we see the character.

And how well the company mixes! For all the disparity of accent and skills, they do evoke a family, sometimes talking all at once, sometimes not talking at all.

A Russian family, too. One doesn't know exactly what that means, but it has something to do with being swept up in a common emotion, joy or sorrow. An American viewer doesn't recognize all of the behavior in this "Cherry Orchard" firsthand, but he has no trouble believing it.

Where some directors try to bring Chekhov home, Brook takes us to Chekhov. There's no sense that, give or take a few details, the story could be happening next door. We know that the story is happening in another country, at another time, a period analogous to ours, but not identical with it.

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