Anton Chekhov Questions Infectious Russian Empire
by Natasha Munasinghe
As we press play on Town Hall’s video version of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” director Susan E. Evans announces: “Let us learn to appreciate there will be times when the trees will be bare, and look forward to the time when we may pick the fruit.” Evans cleverly prepares us to compare Chekhov’s despair in 1900 Russia to the worldwide plague in 2020.
If you’ve had enough of virtual coffee dates and outlandish Netflix, now you can enjoy “The Cherry Orchard” at home. The fall of Czarist Russia reminds me of our present disease and decadence.
Scenic designer Liliana Duque Piñeiro depicts a wonderful but sparsely decorated estate with floating windows and doors. The formerly grand mansion is worn down to bare bones while the painted cherry trees bloom deceptively.
Delayne Medoff’s lighting offers wintry blue behind the lovely trees. Medoff uses somber tones for a wealthy family bent on squandering their land and their workers.
The actors bring some nuanced performances to Chekhov’s subtle, comic characters in 1900 Russia, just before the Revolution.
Sarah Ruby plays spaced-out landowner Mme. Ranevskaya, nicknamed “Lyuba,” bringing touching moments. On the brink of losing her home, she performs selfish grief. When Lyuba looks at the blooming orchard, she sees the ghost of her mother, sweeping us into sentimental, pointless memories.
As the dismayed housemaid Dunyasha, Alicia Piemme Nelson brings energetic comedic timing. Nelson amplifies Dunyasha’s struggle with the class system, as we watch her work hard for the inferior landowners.
I laughed out loud at Nelson’s deadpan delivery as she wittily describes her fiancé-to-be, the clumsy and foolish Epikhodov. Dunyasha points out: “Sometimes he gets to talking so you can’t understand a thing,” ridiculing her assigned husband.
Lyuba’s loyal adopted daughter Varya (Heather Kellogg Baumann) describes her love for the peasant turned capitalist, Lopahkin (Ted V. Bigornia). Varya touches our hearts, saying: “He can’t be bothered with me, he pays no attention.” We realize that she will never find fulfillment as in this selfish family.
At moments the cast fails to rise to Chekhov’s bittersweet comedy. I felt zero stakes when Lopakhin tries to convince Lyuba to sell the cherry orchard to build condos.
I desperately hoped their pompous, old butler Fiers would open Lyuba’s eyes. But his feeble joke about the orchard: “it’s in the Encyclopedia” falls flat. No one listens—the essence of Chekhov’s comedy.
The pacing runs rather slowly, and stumbles as video can bleed away dramatic energy. Regardless, we understand the climactic clash between old world privilege and new world relentless profit-taking.
The disease of real estate development fells the trees like the disease that afflicts us. We face the same challenge of chasing GDP. Maybe the plague of greed attacked Russia in 1900 and the U.S. today?
“The Cherry Orchard” offers a great meditation on facing financial disaster, personal loss, and disruptive change. It’s a timely reminder as decline and decay return—that’s Chekhov’s genius at work.
“The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov, directed by Susan E. Evans, translated by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky, at Town Hall Theatre, Lafayette, California, streaming to Saturday, April 18, 2020. Info: townhalltheatre.com
Cast: Heather Kellogg Baumann, Ted V. Bigornia, Ben Chau-Chiu, April Deutschle, Jake Gleason, Tom Holt Jones, Emily M. Keyishian, Alicia Piemme Nelson, Tom Reilly, Mick Renner, Sarah Ruby, Samuel Tomfohr, Domonic Tracy, and Trouble.
Banner photo: Ted V. Bigornia, Alicia Piemme Nelson, and Ben Chau-Chiu. Photos by Jay Yamada