Sam Mandelbaum as Trofimov, Gloria Sanchez as Pishchik. Below: Kathy Couser as Ranyevskaya.
May 18, 2018
“The customs, archetypes, social structure and politics belong to Chekhov’s Russia of 1904; but to stop at mere period and nationality would be to shortchange him.... His play chronicles what it’s like to be a human being.… The Cherry Orchard takes place in 1904 Russia and 2018 USA, at the same time.”
If that quote from the press release
for Anton Chekhov's The Cherry
Orchard (1904), now playing at The
Classic Theatre, had appeared in the
program, much of the vagueness and
complexities of its script might have
been easier to understand. It would
explain, for example, why one
character wears a long turn-of-the-
20th-century gown, while another is
dressed in cargo pants and uses a
smart phone. Ultimately we realize
that it is a means of showing how the issues addressed then have relevance today.
That is not to say the production is
flawed. It is, in fact, imaginatively
crafted and executed, thanks to
innovative director Andy Thornton,
his stellar cast and unexpected use of
the theater's flexible playing space.
Here it is set up as a long rectangle,
extending into and using the lobby area, with seating on three sides.
The Cherry Orchard was premiered in January, 1904; the famed playwright died just six months later. In general, his works are deemed masterful because of the way he could intertwine tragic and comic elements so tightly, using common language or idioms and often making his characters seem both wise and foolish. He had called this play a comedy with elements of farce, but many productions approach it very seriously. This company uses the original script, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, adapted by Richard Nelson, and generally follows the “intertwined” approach.
Briefly, it deals with aristocratic widow Lyubov Raneyevskaya (expertly drawn by Kathy Couser), who has been living in Paris for the past five years, but has been persuaded by her daughter Anya (Samantha Harkiewicz) and her quirky governess Charlotta (Linda Ford) to return to her generations-old, debt-ridden estate. For Madam Lyubov and the rest of her household, losing that home and its cherished cherry orchard, not to mention the way of life it represents, is unthinkable. Sadly, she is impractical and clueless about finances.
Others have similar difficulties. Madam Lyubov's eccentric brother Gayev (Charles Michael Howard) is a foolish chatterbox who has no idea how to save the family home. A fellow aristocrat facing financial ruin is Pishchik (normally a man), winningly played as utterly out of touch by Gloria Sanchez-Molina.
Kevin Majors is surprisingly considerate as Lopakhin, the wealthy, crafty developer who eventually bails them out. His family spent decades as serfs until their emancipation in the mid-1850s. The script changes the word “serf” to “slave,” which adds extra drama to the actor's being African-American. Alas, any of his attempts to help the family involve razing the cherry orchard.
George Burnette makes a welcome appearance as the balmy, muttering butler Firs. Contrast him with Lyubov's adopted daughter Varya (Sarah Fisch), who was in charge of the house while her mother was in Paris, and is perhaps the only reasonable, albeit powerless character in the group.
The cast is rounded out by Sam Mendelbaum as the charismatic student Trofimov and Steven Starr as the impossibly clumsy Yepikhodov, who loves sprightly chambermaid Dunyasha (Makenzie Jené). Dorian Arriaga is appropriately rude as Yasha, the thoughtless manservant who toys with the affections of Dunyasha.
Unfortunately, when a play has so many characters with Russian names and scant background information, keeping track of them and their thinking is difficult. Many of them are viewed as symbolic of emerging middle class, revolutionists, etc. Their conversations run an emotional gamut, often sprinkled with unexpected humor. Unfortunately, some of those chats were muddied for this listener, who was seated at the far end of the playing space.
Mr. Thornton's staging is easygoing yet efficient on Alfy Valdez's spare set with its few furnishings against handsome, modernistically painted walls.
Ultimately, the play illustrates that any era can involve persons who take comfort in the past or future but cannot face the present. Contemporary politicians, perhaps?
The Cherry Orchard runs through May 27 at The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Rd. 210-589-8450.
Classic Theatre: The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov
A Russian staple, reimagined for US
Kevin Majors as Lopakhin, Kathy Couser as Ranyevskaya, Michael Howard as Gayev in The Classic Theatre production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
Photos: Siggi Ragnar