Class warfare has a place of honor on the long list of terrifyingly timely topics currently being explored on stages the world over, and The Seagull Project’s The Cherry Orchard is a crash course.
Not that it looks like war. With Russia on the brink of social revolution, and one aristocratic family on the brink of insolvency, everyone involved is mostly…milling about. What else does one do, when the old rules no longer apply and the new rules haven’t been written yet?
In a once-sumptuous Russian country home, pristine white cloth covers long-unused furniture; klezmer-scaled melodies fill the theatre with their uniquely joyful melancholy. As the house lights go down and the luscious lighting comes up softly on glittering chandeliers, the brittle beauty of the past seems already poised to shatter. A small house staff anxiously awaits the late-night arrival of Madame Ranevskaya (Julie Briskman), who finally waltzes into her childhood nursery and acts as though nothing at all has changed.
In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s 1904 play (his last) about the death of Tsarist Russia, this flighty aristocrat returns to the estate where her brother (Peter Crook) has been doing god-knows-what while she’s been swanning around Paris, falling in and out of love. After being mortgaged to the hilt, the estate is on the brink of ruin and facing the auction block. The family and long-suffering servants drift through their days, unwilling or unable to figure it out. They even throw a motley ersatz ball, a throwback to better days (though the people dancing together wouldn’t have rubbed elbows even 10 years earlier.
There are some lovely performances—Crook as Ranevskaya’s sentimental brother Gaev, Sydney Andrews as the long-suffering housekeeper (and Ranevskaya’s adopted daughther) Varya, David Quicksall as their perpetually skint neighbor Simeonov, Alex Matthews’ determined and bumbling clerk Yepikhodov, who crashes on stage with exquisite comic timing.
But many of the performances desired more nuance. Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya (Ayo Tushinde) is the necessary optimist, perpetual student Trofimov (Spencer Hamp) is the token political radical. Ranevskaya herself is a product of her time and class, irresponsible and surface-level compassionate (she can’t stop giving away money) but incapable of seeing that the world no longer supports her. They’re beautiful but two-dimensional—symbols first, and people second.
An exception is the production’s unquestionable steam engine, Brandon J. Simmons as Lopakhin. Born a peasant, now a millionaire, he’s an emblem of Russia’s newfound social mobility at the time and a man caught in a whirlpool of conflicting emotion. His performance is worth the price of admission; bewildered by his rise yet crowingly proud of it, admiring of yet disgusted by a leisure class he was raised to venerate and despise, still fighting childhood feelings of worthlessness.
Few of the other characters seem to want much of anything, even if that desire is just to know what they want. There’s never any doubt that the cherry orchard will be lost, nor any real wish that it be saved. I never pitied the old guard, even as they were losing everything, nor felt passion for the rising generation, poised to make a new start in a country reborn.
The Cherry Orchard is a comedy, but it’s easy to leave the comedy to the comic characters like Yepikhodov and let the rest fall into the melancholy mood of Chekhov, which so expertly informs the design. Thick, warm light (Robert J. Aguilar), haunting music (Robertson Witmer), spare set pieces on a clean wooden platform (Jennifer Zeyl), scattered all round with blossoms—if it sounds heavy-handed, it isn’t. Nor, it must be said, is director John Langs’ choice to employ direct address to the audience, which you don’t often see with Chekhov, but which lends a compelling neediness to these characters grasping for connection.
This is a gorgeous production of The Cherry Orchard, but there is nothing that makes this play feel contemporary or, more critically, necessary. Perhaps The Seagull Project’s 18-month-long gestation period is working against it, because the result is a flawless academic production of Chekhov—but I don’t want academic, nor do I need flawless. I need glossy but cracking, desperate and bitter, hopeful and proud. Not that the social rules of this world would allow that on the surface, but Chekhov managed to write about life and death without rippling the pond, and his characters require similar depth. This Cherry Orchard is good. The Seagull Project is capable of great.