BWW Review: Actors' Shakespeare Project's THE CHERRY ORCHARD Bears Fruit
The Cherry Orchard
Written by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Melia Bensussen & The Cherry Orchard company, Directed by Melia Bensussen; Scenic Designer, Cristina Todesco; Lighting Designer, John Malinowski; Costume Designer, Nancy Leary; Sound Designer/Composer, Arshan Gailus; Properties Designer, Ian Thorsell; Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub; Production Manager, Deb Sullivan
Performances through March 9 by Actors' Shakespeare Project at The Dane Estate at Pine Manor College, 400 Heath Street, Chestnut Hill, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.actorsshakespeareproject.org
It is a melancholy truth that everything comes to an end in this world, but Anton Chekhov tempers the message with lyrical prose, interwoven with absurdity, in The Cherry Orchard, his last play written as he was dying. Featuring a new translation by Director Melia Bensussen and the company, Actors' Shakespeare Project mounts a lighter, accessible version in Founder's Hall at The Dane Estate at Pine Manor College in Brookline. Performing in the round in this stately, dramatic setting, the actors inhabit space and time in a way that allows their characters to emerge naturally, enhanced by the proximity of their audience.
Chekhov's characters are a pleasant bunch, albeit with their individual foibles, and there isn't one that you'd want to exclude from the party. In A.S.P.'s ensemble of equals, Bensussen drives home the point that all are experiencing the impact of the dire circumstances facing Madame Ranyevskaya (Marya Lowry). As the matriarch, she may be the focal point, but the stories of the antagonist Lopakhin, her adopted daughter Varya, her younger daughter Anya and Trofimov the tutor, and even the housemaid Dunyasha and her suitors, are as vital to the gestalt of the play.
Returning from her five-year long retreat to Paris following the deaths of her husband and young son, Ranyevskaya must face the impending auction of the family estate, including the beloved cherry orchard, to pay off debts. She and her talkative brother Gaev (Richard Snee) fret and hope for a miracle, yet refuse to accept the practical solution, a business deal offered by Lopakhin (Steve Barkhimer). Stuck in the past and unwilling to destroy the beautiful but unproductive orchard, she continues to spend as though she has still has money, even granting a loan to her impoverished neighbor Pishchik (Jake Berger). Meanwhile, Trofimov (Danny Bryck) sees the future and tries to open Ranyevskaya's eyes to the truth, of the changes coming to a post-revolutionary Russia. Anya (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) is wide-eyed and optimistic, also attempting to gently guide her mother toward a new way of life.
In spite of the wolf being at the door, life goes on with affairs of the heart often taking center stage. Varya (Marianna Bassham) is in love with Lopakhin who seems to care for her, as well, but just never gets around to acting on it. Dramatic and flirtatious, Dunyasha (Esme Allen) flits between the clumsy, yet earnest, Yepikhodov (Gabe Graetz) and Yasha (Mac Young), the mistress' elusive, dashing footman. Charlotta the governess (Sarah Newhouse) entertains with magic tricks and Fiers (Arthur Waldstein), the very elderly servant, tries to maintain some semblance of order and civility. Perhaps more than anyone or anything else, Fiers represents the past and present of not only the estate, but Russia, as well.
Enduring in denial of her predicament, Ranyevskaya hosts a party (offstage) on the day of the auction and the celebratory event concludes when Gaev and Lopakhin return with news of their fate. Unsuccessful in his attempt to secure a loan, Snee's hangdog look contains so many emotions - guilt, resignation, sadness - while Barkhimer is absolutely giddy and drunk with power as the merchant announces that he purchased the property. It is one of Barkhimer's finest moments in the play and creates an opportunity for Lowry to excel in the scene, too. When Ranyevskaya learns the news, her face becomes a mask. She freezes in place, gripping the banister until Lopakhin exits, before she slowly crumples to the floor.
Bensussen draws strong performances from the entire ensemble. Barnett-Mulligan's hopeful, spirited Anya contrasts with Bassham's uptight Varya, but the two women share a warm, sisterly connection. Bryck conveys Trofimov's righteousness and youthful zeal, Newhouse steals the spotlight whenever she has the chance, and Graetz adds appreciated comic touches. Allen finds several pockets of personality in her character, and Berger, Young, and Waldstein are fine in lesser roles. The director takes advantage of a majestic staircase and a heavy exterior door for frequent entrances and exits, and the design team makes the most of the beautiful surroundings. John Malinowski gradually changes lighting hues to effect day becoming evening, Nancy Leary's costumes are evocative of early 20th century Russia, and Arshan Gailus underscores the action with his musical compositions. Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco and Properties Designer Ian Thorsell complete the tableau with lavish rugs and furnishings.
A.S.P.'s The Cherry Orchard succeeds on so many levels. The physical space, the sure-handed direction, the design team, and the cohesive ensemble combine for an unusual and rewarding theatrical experience. My only caveat is that the seating configuration on three sides of the set always results in some of the actors facing away from areas of the audience. My companion and I found it challenging to hear the dialogue when we had a view of anyone's back. I'd recommend asking to be seated in one of the side sections, rather than the far end of the hall. It's just too good to be missed.