Chop, Chop

The Cherry Torture, critics often call it. And for good reasons. Anton Chekhov's final play babbles on and on for four acts of increasingly tedious arrivals and departures by more than a dozen oddball characters. Actors enter with great flourish to announce that they must be going, and then they hang around, telling everyone that yes, yes, they really have to leave soon, which they don't. Until finally, hours later, with even greater flourish, one by one they make their exits. Then it's our turn. Finally. Finally.

Don't blame Chekhov. The problem with The Cherry Orchard isn't the play itself. Even 101 years after its debut at the Moscow Art Theatre (with Chekhov's wife in the lead), the play stands as a brilliant, carefully crafted, stealthily witty send-up of the Russian aristocracy on the brink of revolution. The wealthy upper class just couldn't believe that any ragtag workers or college students could ever topple their imperial czar (or their way of life). So they kept the party going, spending like mad and ignoring all signs of social and political upheaval.

What usually goes wrong with staging this classic lies in the tone chosen by the particular production. Too many actors, like those now doing The Cherry Orchard at the Arena Theater at Richland Community College, tend to approach it as strictly a dreary tragedy, which really dampens the fun. Chekhov did pen some downers--Ivanov ends in an onstage suicide, and The Three Sisters makes you want to commit it. But he wasn't a mope. He also gave us Uncle Vanya, that sweet, rather dotty comedy about country bumpkins and unrequited love (staged beautifully in Terry Martin's new treatment of it at WaterTower Theatre earlier this year).

By the time he started scribbling The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov probably needed a few giggles. In his early 40s, dying of tuberculosis, he'd been forced out of Moscow by the intelligentsia who just didn't get what he was up to. Why not go out with a laugh? And at the expense of some upper-class twits.

Even on the page, it's clear that The Cherry Orchard comes closer to full-out comedy than tearjerking tragedy, a sort of fin de siecle Noises Off with a dash of bitters. The playwright works in a governess who does card tricks, a comically ancient butler and a character who speaks gibberish and wears squeaky shoes. It's as antic as a Marx Brothers movie or Monty Python's Flying Circus. It even has its own weird sound effects, including offstage dogs barking, an ax chopping trees in the distance and the loud twaaaaang, twice, of a broken string.

With all that noise and so many characters trundling in and out laden with more and more luggage in every scene, there should be plenty of laughs, right up to the end, to those suddenly quiet moments of heartbreaking humanity when it's obvious that the cash-poor aristos at the center of the piece really are being tossed out of their family manse to make way for tacky vacation cottages. The old must make way for the new--the new Russia, that is. That loud twang? That's the sound of a society breaking from the past.

To really grab the audience and hold us for all four acts, The Cherry Orchard has to make us laugh before it can ask us to cry. This is where the Classical Acting Company, the 2-year-old troupe of overly earnest thesps who insist on picking plays hardly anyone wants to see (or see again), goes awry. Directed by Susan Sargeant, known for having a surer hand with drama, this is an Orchard afraid to go far enough out on that limb toward funny. They play too much to the wistfulness instead, losing most opportunities for the audience to get Chekhov's lighter side. And if we don't laugh, we won't feel sad later on. This production doesn't stir the way it should. One or two too many wooden performances don't help.

It begins with servants (bouncy Andra Laine as kooky Dunyasha, Kevin Nash as the incalculably old butler Firs) preparing for the arrival of the snooty estate owners. Madame Liubov Ranyevskaya, the matriarch (played with not quite enough Auntie Mame flair by Kristina Baker), is returning from Paris to her ancestral home outside Moscow. The house and its retinue of servants are in a state of advanced decay, Liubov having neglected to keep up mortgage and tax payments. The bank has foreclosed on the place, and it will be sold (to whom is the play's big surprise).

Dressed in chic fashions, Liubov, her daughters Anya (Lisa Schreiner) and Varya (Emily Gray), and Liubov's dilettante brother Leonid Gayev (Cliff Stephens) remain in denial about their imminent eviction. A friendly banker, Lopakhin (Matthew Gray), a self-made success secretly in love with Liubov, gives her a way out of the mess. Cut down the cherry orchard, he tells her. Carved into smaller lots, the orchard could be the site of hundreds of pricey little houses. Even after expenses are paid, the family would have enough left over to live on comfortably for the rest of their lives.

Liubov doesn't listen. She's more emotionally attached to the old orchard, which, like the upper Russian classes, hasn't produced any fruit for years, than she could ever be to a lower-class buffoon like Lopakhin. The best solution, she announces airily, is for pretty daughter Anya to marry a rich man. Anya, meanwhile, has eyes only for penniless grad student Petya Trofimov (Steven Walters, looking like a young John Lennon). Lopakhin is expected to wed the colorless Varya, a prospect neither considers desirable. Liubov, the ultimate flibbertigibbet, spends money she doesn't have throwing a lavish and rather sad farewell ball for the neighbors, complete with champagne and full orchestra.

Chekhov intended his upper-class characters to look like fools. And he imbues the banker, student and servants with heaps of dignity. Whatever anyone says, he often means for us to hear just the opposite. "I'm so glad you're still alive," Liubov deadpans to the decrepit Firs. He also likes to make characters say things they could apply to themselves. To Lopakhin, Liubov whines, "Subdivide? Leisure homes? It's all so hopelessly vulgar." That she is.

If only the attractive actors of the Classical Acting Company would stop taking Chekhov and themselves so seriously. As Liubov, Baker seems overly proud of herself, too stately, steaming around the stage in long skirts like a shiny cruise liner. Liubov needs to be funnier and more likable, even if she is a stupid woman, so we can feel a little sorry for her when the time comes. And what happened to Lopakhin's romantic feelings for Liubov? They've eliminated that little bit of chemistry altogether.

As God-fearing daughter Varya, Emily Gray (co-founder with husband Matthew of CAC) grasps none of her character's comedic possibilities, playing her instead as a sour schoolmarm. Lisa Schreiner is a bubbly but unmemorable Anya. Cliff Stephens gives Gayev some froth--the character constantly repeats under his breath his own favorite billiard shots--but he navigates the final scenes awkwardly.

The funniest characters are Pischick, a down-at-heels neighbor, who, like Seinfeld's Kramer, suddenly falls ass-deep into new money, and Yepihodov, a bumbling accountant nicknamed "Double Trouble," who can't enter or leave a room without breaking something. As the former, H. Francis Fuselier seems to be alone among the cast in finding the right balance of comedy and pathos in his character. Doug Davidson needs to bumble more and mumble less as Yepihodov. Valerie Hauss-Smith, using a Greta Garbo accent, makes a spicy Carlotta, the vividly dressed governess with lots of tricks up her sleeve. Too bad Chekhov doesn't let us see her more. Off in the other part of the house entertaining servants, no doubt.

Scenic designer Randel Wright dresses the stage in long swaths of gauzy fabric the color of dust. These are gathered or loosened to represent ballrooms or orchards. Pretty enough, but rather wispy. Costumes by Diane Kearney often overpower their wearers, particularly the shiny, heavy frocks on Liubov.

By Act 4 the endless goodbyes do grow tiresome, more so because this cast takes its time when it should be quickening the pace. The axes are falling, people. And don't you hear that twang?

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner