Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
“Words fail Chekhov’s characters…lacking a Caliban or an Ariel to perform the actions they need, they are left only with resultant chaos because of what they avoid with words.”
– Annie DiMario, Bakerloo Dramaturg
Last summer while we were on vacation one of my sons made a secret videotape of our family hanging out in our hotel room one evening watching the local news on TV. We find local news in foreign places to be incredibly fascinating. The tape is less about what we are doing, than about what we are saying. We sound just like a scene from a Chekhov* play with each of us uttering self-absorbed overlapping monologues on whatever happens to wander into our heads prompted by the news or some random thing someone else in the room said. Since we were unaware that we were being taped, that conversation can be considered “natural.” Anton Chekhov was the master at recreating that natural rhythm of familiar interaction (communication would be too strong a word) artificially on stage.
Bakerloo is presenting Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, in a literate and accessible translation by Curt Columbus, the Artistic Director of Trinity Rep in Providence, RI, who has staged his own translations of all four of Chekhov’s major works. I have not encountered a translation by Columbus before – Paul Schmidt seems to be the Chekhov translator currently in vogue – and I liked the rendition very much. The speech flowed naturally and felt both modern and 19th century Russian at the same time.
The recently closed production of Three Sisters at the Williamstown Theatre Festival was enormously over produced. Conspicuous amounts of cash were invested in sets, costumes, lights, and props, not to mention casting. The result was gorgeous, and off-putting. No wonder everyone felt so alone, they each had at least ten square feet of stage space all to themselves.
At Bakerloo a cast of 13, directed by Ryan Howe, performs The Cherry Orchard in the round in the modest confines of RPI’s Academy Hall. Everything is simple and clean, so the focus falls not on the glory of it all but on the characters and the words.
When I first entered the theatre and contemplated the basically empty playing space dotted with a few cubes, I wondered how The Cherry Orchard which is quite specific to place, was going to establish itself. Then Justin Honard, playing Firs the elderly butler, emerged carrying a little model of a room – he could hold it in one hand – a miniature world which he described, using Chekhov’s own stage directions. He walked the perimeter of the audience and held it up so that everyone got a good look, and instantly those cubes became sofas and bookcases. You knew where you were and what its significance was to the action. Just like that.
Anton Chekhov lived in a very interesting period of Russian history. DiMario’s dramaturg’s notes in the program tell us he was “...born in 1860, one year before Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs, and dead in 1904, just one year before the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre that sowed the seeds for the Bolshevik revolution and communism.” Chekhov’s characters often speak of the future and the changes that must and will happen to get mankind from where we are to where we could or should be. The Cherry Orchard is all about change, and the inability of the Gaev family to accept or manage it. The family’s country estate, including the house and a sizeable cherry orchard as well as other lands, is being auctioned off to pay the mortgage. Although different options for keeping the house, if not the land, in the family are proposed, the Gaevs remain immobilized by a lack of courage and imagination, and ultimately the estate is purchased by Yermolai Lopakin, a noveau riche merchant whose ancestors were literally owned by the Gaevs as serfs. Although it is rumored throughout that he will propose to Varya, the adopted daughter of Mme. Ranevskaya, he never does, and so the house and land passes from the Gaevs’ grasp forever.
The cherry orchard itself is an impossibility. Cherry trees are short-lived, and no orchard of that size could or would have existed, especially not so close to the house. The idea of a whole forest in bloom is merely an appealing fantasy, much like the feudal society that would have cared for it.
Mme. Ranevskaya (Marsha Harman) and her brother Leonid (Eric Chase) arrive back at their ancestral home in May, when the cherry orchard is in bloom, with their family and servants. Mme. Ranevskaya has an adopted daughter, Varya (Sarah Murphy), who runs the estate along with Firs the butler, Yepihodov (Christopher Maxwell) the bookkeeper, and Dunyasha (Rosa Fernandez) the maid. Anya (Lily Junker), Mme. Ranevskaya’s biological daughter, who is all of seventeen, arrives with mother and her uncle, along with Anya’s governess Charlotta (Gwen Hervochon) and a servant Yasha (Ugo Chukwu). Neighbors Lopakin (Joseph McGranaghan) and Boris Semyonov-Pischik (Joe Mihalchick) stop by. Mack Exilus plays both the stationmaster and a down-trodden passerby who comes begging during a family outing in Act II.
The one thing Bakerloo can’t provide is an intergenerational cast. The Bakerloo performers are all of an age – between 20 and 35 I would guess – and, except for Honard as the ancient Firs, no make-up is used to age the actors. Harman is a handsome young woman, but we understand her as Madame Ranevskaya because Chekhov has built the character’s age and outlook and social station into his script. It does take a little time and energy to sort out the folks in the middle range – the very young and very old are obvious – but that is part of the fun of watching these talented young people at work.
Harman was mesmerizing in the central role of Lovey Ranevskaya. This is a role often played by an actress well in her 50’s or 60’s, over even older, and it was only now, seeing a much younger actress tackle the part, that I was able to understand that Mme. Ranevskaya is not that old. She has a seventeen year old daughter and is in the throes of a disastrous love affair. She is more likely to be in her late 30’s or early 40’s.
Junker is radiant as Anya, and Murphy has put on her glasses and is doing her dowdy act as Varya. There is no disguising Murphy’s obvious youth and beauty, but she prissies-up pretty well and is believable as the uptight and frustrated “old maid.”
Chase was doing his best to be fatherly and middle-aged, but I didn’t fall for it this time. McGranaghan projected the social anguish of the noveau riche in a changing society, and Mihalchick was hilarious as the obviously elderly Boris who falls asleep at the drop of a hat and is constantly in need of a loan. As Yepihodov, the love-sick bookkeeper, Maxwell delivered a poignant performance and earned a few good laughs.
Howe and Hervochon have come up with a decidedly out-there interpretation of Charlotta. Clad in an outlandish beaded shawl Hervochon uses her wildly curly hair and big expressive eyes to convey the appearance of a woman not quite of this world.
The one group I did not understand were the servants – Yasha and Dunyasha and Yepihodov (we will leave Firs out of this for the moment). Not only was I confused by the similarity of their names, but Honard’s costumes did not give me a clear sense of class. Dunyasha is supposed to be dressed above her station and “putting on airs” but I didn’t get that. Howe has also chosen to represent her as increasingly pregnant, which is plausible but isn’t in the script. I can only assume that she herself didn’t know who the father was because, while Yepihodov is obviously the jilted lover, neither he nor Yasha seemed to look at her belly with any sort of emotion. Surely if Yepihodov had believed the baby was his he would have fought harder to keep her from Yasha, and if he believed the baby was Yasha’s he would have looked at Dunyasha with increasing despair.
Overall though, Honard’s costume choices are interesting and appropriate to the characters and production without setting it in any specific time period. Tony Tambasco’s lighting design occasionally provides areas of Chekhovian isolation even in this small space. The set by Aaron Smith is identical to the one used for “The Tempest” except that the eight panels surrounding the playing area are showing their autumnal reds and green leave-life pattern instead of their tempestuous blue and green waves (peak around the back to see them of you haven’t already.)
When I reviewed the Bakerloo production of The Tempest the other week, I pondered whether The Cherry Orchard would be the funnier of the company’s 2008 offerings. They are certainly an excellent pairing and I highly recommend seeing both (you’ll have to hurry, I think The Tempest has only one more performance) because they pose interesting parallels about how to conclude one phase of life and move on to the next.
There is no doubt that Howe and his cast considered The Cherry Orchard a comedy, as Chekhov himself termed it, or even a farce, which was another word the author used to describe his last work (Chekhov died of tuberculosis shortly after The Cherry Orchard had its premiere at the Moscow Arts Theatre). The night I attended there was a group in the audience who were obviously very close friends and relations of the cast and who laughed loudly, heartily, and frequently. They were laughing at seeing their pals do funny things on stage. This kind of thing happens and it can be slightly annoying to audience members who don’t get the “in” jokes, but there is no law against enjoying seeing your friends act silly. However I noticed that even that lot settled down by the end of the second act, as they became used to seeing their friends on stage and more engrossed in the plot.
The Cherry Orchard like all of Chekhov, is indeed achingly, painfully funny. The humor comes from the pathetic ordinariness of it all, of watching first-hand the inertia with which we stumble through life – missing obvious opportunities as we cling to our comfortingly familiar failures. It all looks and sounds so real, while being incredibly artificial. I just love Chekhov, and I really enjoyed this straight forward, text-based production which allowed me to enjoy Chekhov’s words and characters up close and personal.
The Bakerloo Theatre Project's production of The Cherry Orchard will be performed July 25, 26, 31, and August 2 at 8 p.m., as well as July 27 and August 2 at 2 p.m., at Academy Hall at the corner of 15th Street and College Avenue on the RPI campus in Troy, NY. the show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 15 and up. Tickets are $16 each, or $25 for a season pass. Visit www.bakerloo.org for information about discount tickets and group rates.
* Once again I offer my disclaimer that I love Chekhov but not everybody loves Chekhov and there is no shame involved if you are not a Chekhov Person. I am not a Tennessee Williams person. À chacun son goût.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008