Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Cherry Orchard (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Note:  When I attended this performance, the understudies were 'up' and so you may see a different set of actors.  Mentioned for accuracy's sake not as anything like a criticism.  

Anton Chekhov's plays usually come across as somber dramas about hopelessness and despair.  In fact he himself didn't see them that way.  Rather, he saw them as very funny comedies about hopelessness and despair.

The Loft Ensemble's production of The Cherry Orchard successfully renders the very character-based humor of Chekhov, which so often gets interpreted as drama.  In fact they play more like dark sitcoms, a blend of soap opera with shows such as Cheers! than angst-driven tragedies a la Eugene O'Neil. Yeah all these people are pretty much losers, fools trying to get by who--for the most part--refuse to correct their own circumstances by making uncomfortable choices.  Lifeboats await them, the waters rise, but they keep hoping someone else will save the ship.  That way they won't have to change their clothes and choose which of their favorite toys and books they'll have to leave behind.  So, they ultimately drown, looking on with bewilderment as others abandon them in order to survive--said others often yelling over and over "Come with us!  Save yourselves!"

If that isn't the stuff of dark comedy, what is?

What adaptor/director Jared Wilson chose was to transpose events from turn-of-the-century Imperial Russia to modern day Texas.  Kinda/sorta.  The names remain the same--  --but costumes and accents pretty much scream "Texas."  One of my few complaints is how a more specific world doesn't quite emerge from this.  The talk of "dollars" for example amidst all the Russian names, coupled with the startling references to slaves in living memory, jar a bit.  But only a bit.  Mostly, I found myself sucked into this world--at first with the fascination of a seeing a car wreck, but eventually with a melancholy sense of affection for these...well, losers.

Renee (Jennifer Christina Derosa) and her brother Greg (Stephen Rockwell) function as the center this mini-society of a country estate, where one finds the title character, owned by Renee and Greg's family for generations.  The former has a surviving child, a daughter Anya (Dayeanne Hutton), who now accompanies her mother's return from Paris after five years.  It says something about this family that their nanny is a sometimes magician called Charlie the Mysterious (April Morrow).  Vanessa (Ainsley Pearce), the very religious adopted daughter of Renee, rounds out the family proper but of course the servants count in some odd way.  Firs (Mitch Rosander) especially, the ancient family retainer who knows no more of life than work and fondly remembers days before "The Freedom," i.e. when slavery was abolished.

In the original Russian setting this referred to serfdom, still part of the living memory of Chekhov and his contemporaries.

Central to the whole story lies Lenny (Maxwell Marsh), son and grandson of slaves, whom he hates yet whose respect he still desires.  Crude, trying far too hard, full of energy which has led him to acquire genuine wealth, Lenny hopes to save Renee and Greg--well, mostly Renee--from their debts.  He has a workable plan.  Sell the estate to make condos.  Simple, he insists.  Neither will listen.  Neither will even consider listening.  The whole idea -- the only way in fact of saving themselves from extreme poverty -- remains beyond comprehension.  Yeah, the ship sinks and they just hope somehow the water won't reach them.

As you may gather, the play's plot isn't really the story here.  Rather, it becomes a portrait of the characters and their world.  Rather than an over-arching story, Chekhov focuses on all the individual stories and how they intertwine, or at least happen in easy reach of one another.  Vanessa's hopeless love of Lenny, coupled with his fascination/obsession with Renee.  Estate Manager Yepi (Leon Mayne) and his unrequited passion for Patty (Barbara Ann Howard), who in turn has an affair with Yasha the driver (Shane Tometich).  Plus the neighbor Bill (Tor Brown), forever borrowing money from anyone who'll help but a good ol' boy in the best sense.  Then of course there is Anya's flirtation with Peter (Daniel Manning), her late brother's former tutor, the eternal student sure he knows all the answers without having really lived much in the world.

Even the various retainers at the estate--Joseph Bills, Madison Charest, Marryn Landry--make up part of the sinews, the blood and tissue of those who dwell, perhaps haunt, the old and beloved cherry orchard.  Yet despite all the absurdity, the casual and often deliberate cruelty, not to mention a tiny mountain range of foolishness, we laugh.  Perhaps to keep back the tears, because while sooner or later everyone does something hateful, we never end up hating them.  Rather, we grow fonder and fonder of these nice, stupid, petty and complex people.

The Cherry Orchard plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm until January 22, 2017 at the Loft Ensemble, 13442 Ventura Blvd (across from the Psychic Eye), Sherman Oaks CA 91423.

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