Dallas — In the introduction to David Mamet’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, he helpfully describes the two ways to determine what kind of cards your opponent has in poker. The first is tells. These are subconscious cues such as how they sit, how they hold their cards, how they handle their chips. The other are their bets. What action are they taking? This is helpful in understanding The Cherry Orchard, because the tells in the play, the characters language, are all about the destruction of the actual cherry orchard on the family property of Ranevskaya estate. But the bets, what the characters actually do, have nothing to do with the orchard: they could care less.
What makes Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard a masterpiece is not only this dissembling but the complex relationships between characters, how they all weave together and the different tones they bring. Each of the main characters has at least one tragic and romantic “other” in the play. The Classics Theatre Project’s debut performance, directed by Joey Folsom with script adaptation by Ben Schroth, make these relationships sparkle for the audience with excellent blocking and timing as well as concise prose.
Our first relationship to understand is the trio between the matriarch of the Ranevskaya clan, Lyubov (Emily Scott Banks), the former serf Lopakin (Taylor Harris), and the adopted daughter Barbara (Gretchen Hahn) as the core of the play, and these three actors play it wonderfully. Lopakin is now the richest man in town and Lyubov has returned from Paris without a kopek. But watch the large and powerful Harris (6’4, 300 lbs) hunch his shoulders, hands outstretched as if asking for alms, towards Bank’s now destitute Lyubov—only asking her to let him help her family. Watch as Banks sits with her legs crossed and will only turn her head toward him briefly, then close her shoulders away from him and turn back to her gilded coffee pot and ponce of a brother. Listen to her as she thanks the faithful servant Firs as he bows in front of her, on his knees, placing a cushion under her feet “Thank you, dear… Thank you, dear old man.”
Lopakin tries to save her and her family, but gets ignored. But her servant, a man who knows and accepts his lowly station, gets profuse thanks for a pillow. Can she not see the sense in selling the orchard to Lopakin before the bank forecloses and it goes up for auction? Or can she not see Lopakin as anything but a serf, and won’t demean herself to him, won’t let him have the power in their dynamic? And what else is Lopakin communicating? Something that he might not be aware of himself - is he in love with her? Or is she an object of worship? This gripping duet goes on throughout the play and the language and exquisite dexterity of Harris and Banks brings these two characters to an intricate and subtle life before our eyes.
Complicating things further: what are Lopakin’s feelings for Barbara, and vice versa? Lyubov asks her why she hasn’t married him, to which she finally replies after innumerable mentions and questions from the other characters “BECAUSE I CAN’T PROPOSE TO HIM MYSELF!” Lopakin, the successful man of business, the richest man in town, can’t seem to bring himself to take action and marry Barbara. Hahn makes Barbara’s understandable duality crystal clear to the audience. On the one hand she is the “adult in the room”, having managed the estate while Lyubov has been away in Paris. On the other hand emotionally destitute at the lack of appreciation from her adopted family and lack of love from Lopakin.
But wait, you ask, isn’t this a comedy? Well yes, in a way. But the humor reveals as much of the heartbreak as the tragic circumstances and misunderstandings. Take the relationship between the clerk Yepikodov (Matthew Eitzen) and the maid Dunyasha (Rachel Reininger). Eitzen’s physical comedy is on point, as it’s his tell to the audience that he is incredibly uncomfortable pursuing Dunyasha, he feels she’s too good for him and/or he is generally uncomfortable around women. Reininger’s mix of comedy and sensuality is pitch perfect. At first, we think she is at least considering Yepikodov’s recent proposal of marriage (as she’s telling anyone who’ll listen about it). But the second Lyubov’s servant Yasha (Dean Wray) returns with his mistress from Paris, Reininger turns into a sex guided missile who has acquired her target. Yasha’s presumed sophistication from having lived in Paris these past years and the chance for Dunyasha to leave her provincial servant lifestyle combine to cause her to all but assault the only too willing Yasha. But Wray’s Yasha is every bit the selfish rake bordering on sociopath. This trio of Eitzen’s romantic clumsiness, Reininger’s sexual tenacity and Wray’s hot and cold reciprocation reinforce the tragicomic aspects of the play.
Chekhov wrote this play in 1903, two years before the Russian Revolution of 1905 and just a year after Lenin published the pamphlet “What Is To Be Done?” a shockingly popular work that calls for a revolutionary vanguard among the socialist intelligentsia. Chekhov captures the revolutionary moment in the character Trofimov (Sterling Gafford). But Trofimov is every bit as complicated as the other characters in the play. The tutor for Lyubov’s son at the time of his drowning (and at least a vague nod towards his possible responsibility), Trofimov is penniless and still a student though approaching thirty. He has obviously read the revolutionary literature of the time and believes in a Marxist future of Russia. He says “The human race progresses, perfecting its powers. Everything that is unattainable now will someday be near at hand and comprehensible, but we must work, we must help with all our strength those who seek to know what fate will bring.”
But Trofimov has layers, and Gafford handles them deftly, and his tragic other is Lyubov’s youngest daughter Anna (Courtney Mentzel). Seemingly in love at the first sight of her (exclaiming to himself “My sun! My spring!”, as soon as he lays eyes on her), Trofimov has a hard time maintaining his revolutionary verve. Whereas he should notionally be focused on liberating the peasants and raising their “revolutionary consciousness”, he instead demonstrates his warmth for the aristocratic Ranevskaya clan, a strange but seemingly heartfelt affection for the new upper class of merchant in the form of Lopakin, and his feelings for Anna. Gafford handles the shifts in tone and subtle undercurrents of his character well.
Mentzel’s Anna has a lot to do with very few lines. She must respond to the love of not only Trofimov, but by Leon, Lyubov and Barbara. She is the baby of the family (though seemingly a teenager as the play is written). In some ways she embodies innocent youth, someone for whom life isn’t so tragic yet. Mentzel’s bright smile and cheery disposition in the face of hardship display the character’s brightness and guiltlessness.
Chekhov once wrote a friend “My job… is to be able to distinguish important phenomena from unimportant, to be able to illuminate characters and speak with their tongues.” So while one might think that the remaining characters are set pieces in the play, there to shine light on the main characters because they don’t have a tragic “other”, they embody the themes of the play as well. These characters share a cell in the tragicomic prison Chekhov has created.
The difference being that sex doesn’t enter into their motivations. Leon (Stan Graner) seems as obsessed with an antique bookcase as with any thoughts of love. A bachelor of some years, he seemingly resides in Lyubov’s orbit and as a character is there to help keep the Ranevskaya in their aristocratic birdcage. Pischtchick (James Hansen Prince) is constantly borrowing money to pay interest on his estate, but still finding time to socialize with the upper class rather than find a way out of his predicament. Prince hits his notes just right, with his wide aristocratic smile distracting us from the depth of despair in his eyes. The governess Charlotte (Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) is the Shakespearean fool in the play—wise but witty. She finds the predicament of the Ranevskaya clan just another problem to be dealt with, and Pyeatt makes the most of the humor in her character.
In some ways Firs (Francis Fuselier) is the most tragic character in the play. A completely powerless figure, an elderly and sickly man dedicated to his lowly station as servant. Fuselier plays the part with a delicate fragility until his especially heartbreaking ending. His last words, and the last words in the play being “blunderheads!” Usually translators and adaptors of Chekhov make this singular and translate it to “bungler!” or “old fool!”, Firs realizing that he’s placed his trust in an aristocracy that he should have known would abandon him. But the plural is just as accurate.
Director Joey Folsom really gets the most out of his actors. The casting, timing and pace of the staging are spot on. However, the set, costumes and music leave quiite a bit to be desired. For those unfamiliar with the play, it takes more than a little imagination and close attention to the language to understand the backdrop of the scenes and the social class of the characters. A nearly bare stage with a bit of furniture and a thin linen cloth used to project the action of the ball in Act III is the only staging. The characters are all in modern and mostly casual dress. And the music seems to be a few favorite modern tracks off of Folsom’s iPod rather than something to aid the actors and the scenes. For a theater company that highlighted its “hefty budgets and commitment to paying all actors” pre-launch, it seems that at some point someone realized that budget cuts had to be made somewhere.
But overall we should be happy as theatergoers to get what The Classics Theatre Project has done with The Cherry Orchard and I, for one, hope to see this cast and director continue its mission of bringing more of the classical theatrical canon, professionally done, to DFW.