Brian Jacobson

Cherry Orchard at the Milwaukee Rep

By - Apr 21st, 2009 11:20 am
Lee Stark (Anya) and Jürgen Hooper (Petya)

There is a moment in Anton Chekhov’s play, here adapted by Irish playwright Tom Murphy, in which the extended family and relations sit in silence just staring into the unseen, blossoming orchard. It is one of a few dramatic uses of protracted silence in this production spaced between the comedy and tragedy to emphasize the ‘hangtime’ in these people’s lives. The moment is brought on by remembering past memories, and then interrupted by the far away muffled sound of an explosion implying that the Russian Revolution has begun.

The choice of Chekhov’s famous last play has been billed as a timely one, given our economic climate and the worries over the possible loss of our homes and ways of life. Here, the play begins with Madame Lyubov Ranyevskaya and family returning to the ancestral estate only to watch it slip away. The characters wrangle with each other while reminiscing about yesteryear and worry about maintaining appearances into the future. The timeline of the play takes place on precipice of sorts between past fortunes and future plans while the present is a trifle.

It was understandable that the company of actors, under the direction of Ben Barnes, didn’t use Russian accents – often this audible trick can feel like a gimmick and detract from the drama. But in this case, there was a fluctuation between proper English voices and modern vernacular tones which became a bit distracting. Even though the adaptation still takes place in turn-of-the-century Russia, characters frequently belie their backgrounds by talking like a New Yorker before switching back – and pulling the audience out of the story.

The set, costuming, lighting, and ballet of movement used to change room scenery was remarkable. The staging was very fluid overall considering the large number of actors that would flit through or chew on a scene. The actors themselves worked with the aplomb of someone relishing a new persona except perhaps veteran actor Richard Halverson (as Firs), who once again adeptly inhabits the role of a doddering old man used for comic relief and a sort of Shakespearean “Puck” for being the last man standing.

041409mrt_299The drama also fluently moves through comedy and sadness, although it would have been interesting to see if Chekhov felt enough of the maudlin — which he hated — was removed. The dual nature of this play has always haunted each staging, and this one has decided to end on the overly sentimental and tearful instead of farce.

If the Cherry Orchard is to be billed as relevant today with the mortgage crisis, then it may be poignant to a dwindling number. The tragedy here was the dissolution of communal family and friends due to the loss of a central location. The modern family is often more about gathering and reliability than a physical place to which they’ve become attached. The current crisis is more about the feeling of impotence when the protagonists are not able to keep a lifestyle going. In this stage rendition, the fortunes of its characters seem a bit out of their hands — and it is unclear whether they realize the blame for the downfall was their own fault.

Ticket and showtime information for the Cherry Orchard can be found at Footlights Magazine.

Categories: Theater, VITAL

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