Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Seagull Project's "The Cherry Orchard" reflects turmoil in society

The cast of The Cherry Orchard (Chris Bennion)
The Cherry Orchard
The Seagull Project
(at ACT Theatre)
Through February 19, 2017

Chekhov’s best-known play, The Cherry Orchard, mixes up all the levels of Russian society inside the failing estate of the Gayevs. Servants consort with their bosses in previously unheard-of cheekiness. Businessmen like Lopakhin are more wealthy than the aristocracy, yet have risen from progenitors who were serfs. Aristocracy can’t raise money, yet haven’t figured out their way of life is unsustainable. Life in Russia is in economic turmoil that results in creating a new society that few can reckon with!

The production of this play by The Seagull Project is more suited to these times, with an administration that seems in love with Russia, and has created the beginnings of what could be unknown turmoil, than anyone might have predicted when they began planning the production! There are many pleasing aspects to the play, with some wonderful actors working at the top of their game. There is also a directing choice that tilts the production over in its insistence.

Madame Ranevskaya (Julie Briskman) is returning to her indebted estate after living in Paris. She returns penniless, having no skill of understanding or keeping track of money. Her brother, Gayev (Peter Crook), is having no luck saving the estate, either, and both of them are waiting for a rich aunt to send money, though she doesn’t like them very much.

Her two daughters, Varya (Sydney Andrews) and Anya (Ayo Tushinde) are likewise incapable of saving the estate unless one or the other marries well. Varya could marry her love, Lopakhin (Brandon Simmons), but somehow he never brings up the subject. Yet, Lopakhin does try to save them from themselves.

Lopakhin offers an idea of building summer homes for the middle class along the river. But this idea comes with the requirement that both the famous cherry orchard and the mansion must be razed in order to build. Madame is resolutely against any thought of cutting down the orchard and settles on the notion that the aunt must save them. The audience knows this solution is not going to turn out.

Anya, the well-loved 17 year old, is not positioning herself to be a financial savior. She’s in love with her baby brother’s tutor Trofimov (Spencer Hamp). It’s never very clear why Trofimov is still around. The brother drowned at age 7, part of the reason that Madame ran away to Paris to escape her memories. But Trofimov espouses the “new Russia” of the proletariat, the rejection of the aristocracy and the assertion of the middle class. Anya is ready to follow him, even though as a perennial student he has few prospects of his own.

The production includes some welcome humor with the clowning of servants like Yepikhodov (Alex Matthews), Firs (Mark Jenkins), and Charlotta (Hannah Victoria Franklin), and a geniality of atmosphere. A wonderful addition includes three musicians occasionally on stage, and some singing of the entire cast – especially the opening moments where the cast is spread behind the audience in the dark, singing.

Briskman takes the reins of Madame with sure hands and a beautifully modulated performance. Simmons presents all sides of Lopakhin, a challenge he manages with clarity, since he is both savior and villain to the family.

Director John Langs does a solid job of emphasizing many of the roles, though Trofimov’s stance and motives don’t really get expressed the way they could have. Then, in the second act, Langs opens with a party and forces the actors to dance their way through an enormous chunk of dialogue. Certainly five or eight or ten minutes of music might work, but it seems to extend to almost half an hour here. While it at first enlivens, after a while, it just does not help anymore and confuses the longer it goes on.

There are many aspects of this show that work well. Overall, this is an enjoyable production. Technical support, particularly from Robertson Witmer for sound and gorgeous costuming from Doris Black, as usual contribute enormously.

For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or 206-292-7676.