Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Times They Are A Changin'

Radical economic changes are always difficult -- even for the people who are supposed to benefit. And what country has seen more radical economic change in the last 150 years than Russia?

Anton Chekhov's final masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, is currently running at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles at the Music Center

Annette Benning and Alfred Molina co-star in this adaptation by Martin Sherman and directed by Sean Mathias.

Benning plays Madame Ranyevskaya, the matriarch of a formerly wealthy aristocratic family now penniless (rubleless?) and unable to pay their debts. The family's grand estate, including its treasured cherry orchard, is threatened with being put up for auction. But Ranyevskaya has absolutely no concept of money and persists in giving money away, even though she has no business doing so.

Benning's performance captures the waves of emotions her character experiences -- delighted to be back from Paris and in her old mansion one moment, and in despair over the memory of the drowning-death of her son the next. It's a thrill to watch a master at work live on the stage.

Lopakhin, played by Alfred Molina, is a friend of the family whose father and grandfather were peasants beholden to the family before the serfs were emancipated in 1861. He urges Ranyevskaya to sell off the orchard and subdivide the land for summer cottages in order to still hold onto some of the land. Though Ranyevskaya understands the words she simply can't grasp the concept.

In the meantime family members, their staff and hangers-on all fret about their future as it becomes increasing clear change is afoot. One servant pines for the old system where peasants belonged to masters and masters belonged to peasants. And at the same time a student contemplates a future where ownership is irrelevant -- pre-shadowing Russia's communist period (pretty impressive for a play written well before the 1917 Revolution).

It's interesting to see how Chekhov skewers the aristocracy as out of touch with their irrelevance while still holding some nostalgia for their existence.

The show is simply staged with basic props and sets creating both interior and exterior settings.

In 1999 the Geffen Playhouse staged another of Chekhov's masterpieces, Uncle Vanya. I remember it well: it was the last time I walked out of a show at intermission. Tonight's show was more interesting, especially the second act -- and I feel sorry for the five percent of the audience that left tonight at intermission.

Celebrity Sighting: Lakers Owner Jerry Buss was in the audience a few rows in front of me.
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