“Cherry Orchard” review: a tragedy of laughter

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Photo courtesy of UD Drama department.

Professor Kyle Lemieux’s production of Anton Chekov’s “Cherry Orchard, translated by Curt Columbus, opened April 4 in the Drama Building.

The thoughtful production carefully leads the audience, hot tea in hand, from the University of Dallas campus into a Russian family’s cold and neglected estate at the turn of the 20th century.

There is no recorded music played during the performance, but a lone violinist, senior Mara Borer, performs eastern European classical folk music including Two Guitars by Ivan Vasiliev, Romanian Folk Dances by Béla Bartók and Hungarian Dance no. 5 by Johannes Brahms.  

The audience sits in the wooden enclave of the orchard. Like tour guides showing visitors around a historic site, the ushers lead the audience through the set and to their seats. The ushers recommend that the audience take a different seat after each intermission, giving the audience an unconscious reminder of the artificiality of the scenes they are about to witness as well as their participative role as viewers.

The plot of the play follows the return of aristocrat Lovey Ranevskaya, played by Sandra Twetten, and her family from Paris to their beloved farmhouse. It quickly becomes obvious that their lavish lifestyle is incompatible with their actual economic situation, and their house is in danger of being sold.

If only the careless stopped revelling, the profligate stopped spending, and anyone actually listened to anyone else, the outcome would be more beneficial for all.

The characters’ callow flaws bring a playful energy to the stage. The pratfalls and skittish disposition of Semyon Yepihodov, played by senior Noah Kersting, bring a lightness to scenes.

The shortcomings of the characters are just as sympathetic as their redeeming qualities. However, it is the humorous, static state of the characters that transmutes the play from comedy to tragedy.

The progression of events in the production is logical, but the justice is not appropriate. The members of the house are not sinister foes worthy of retribution, but are like children who cannot foresee the consequences of their actions and do not seem able to outgrow their vices.

The characters spend such a great deal of time submerged in memories of the past that they are unable to focus on the future. Charlotta, played by senior Ellen Rogers, and Dunyasha, played by freshman Nikole Kramer, have the will to move forward, but are trapped by their circumstances. Charlotta’s magic tricks are like the characters’ problems — puzzles that captivate them for a moment but which they do not solve.

An inability to move forward permeates the play. Peter Trofimov, played by Jackson Berkhouse, delivers learned speeches containing specious arguments bolstered by the sophomoric name-dropping of philosophers, and is constantly referred to as the “eternal student” who has spent many years at school without ever graduating.

The characters make jokes, interrupt each other and make random, brusque remarks, signaling their lack of self-awareness but also rendering themselves as familiar persons who could easily be real. They do not sublimate their feelings into soliloquies or grand gestures, but instead, like real people, avoid taking action or even talking about the issues that they should talk about. The tension arises from the inaction of the characters.

The spendthrift Lovey Ranevskaya is in contrast to the miserly Leonid Gaev, played by Samuel Pate. Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter and the mistress of the house, Varya, played by Dolores Mihaliak, tense and overly exacting in her treatment of servants, is balanced by Ranevskaya’s other daughter, Anya, played by Ann Urbanski, who remains unassuming and kind hearted until the end. The careless and sentimental attitude of the family is met in due measure by the overly scrupulous yet insensitive actions of Yermolai Lopakin, played by junior Nicholas Moore.

The coldness of Yasha, junior Anthony White, and Firs, sophomore Thomas Mosmeyer contribute to a sense of unease that lingers throughout the play and recalls the possibility of the loss of the family’s shared life hidden beneath the candor of the characters.

The costumes, designed by Professor Susan Cox, are structured and stately and evoke the landed Russian social hierarchy as well as facets of each character’s personality. Austere Varya is dressed head to toe in black, while aloof and self-involved Yasha wears a three-piece tweed suit.

The play depicts humanity not as it should be, but as it is. For better or worse, no one can enter through the doors of the Drama Building and not laugh as they see themselves reflected in the awkward, sybaritic, humorous, painful or ambitious qualities of those who dwell in the “Cherry Orchard.

Performances run until April 14 at the Drama Building. Tickets can be purchased online at www.udallas.edu/drama

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