Cherry Orchard: tragedy or comedy?

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Photo by Diana Hassink.

I attended the University of Dallas’ Mainstage, “Cherry Orchard,” which ran April 4-14 in the Drama Building, on three different nights: opening night, faculty night and closing night.

I had been anticipating opening night for weeks since my roommate, Sandra Twetten, was playing the female lead of Lovey Ranevskaya. Twetten’s excitement for the production had made her unable to contain the secret of the room built inside the Drama Building, or the tea that would be offered at the beginning of each act.

Her love for the playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov had also given me an inside perspective with the knowledge that “Cherry Orchard” had been written as he died of tuberculosis. Chekhov spent his last months arguing with the director of “Cherry Orchard,” Konstantin Stanislavski, about whether the play should be a tragedy as Stanislavski interpreted it or a comedy as he had intended it to be.

My curiosity for the performance grew when I discovered that the play would not be blocked, giving the actors freedom to act out their characters in a different way, as well as forcing the actors to dynamically work with each other each night.

We were ushered in on opening night to a small room with wooden gapped walls and two rows of wooden benches on each side. Mara Borer, playing the violin, sat in the center of the room, and with the instructions to sit wherever we would like, my friends and I awkwardly found a seat in the back corner, a safe distance from the center of the room where the actors would be. The room slowly filled with people finding seats in a similarly hesitant manner. We all sat silently as Borer finished playing, and then politely applauded as the doors were shut and the lights turned off, leaving us together but alone in the pitch black room.

That night we were all a team. The actors were facing an audience for the first time in what had been an empty room as they rehearsed for the show. Stanislavski’s acting style challenged the actors to become intimately familiar with and almost become their characters as they acted. They were instructed to listen to what their character wanted them to do and use those instincts to create relationships on stage.

The intimate and homelike nature of the set brought the audience, a group of strangers, directly into that vulnerable mindset and space. There were no bright lights to create a “fourth wall” for the actors to hide behind. Similarly, there was no elevated stage or elaborate set to remind the audience that the play wasn’t real.  

The audience was forced to feel the emotions too, and we did. We clapped at the end of each act. We laughed when the actors laughed. We cringed when they were uncomfortable. We looked away when the moments became too vulnerable and too real for comfort. The audience and actors fed off each other.

That night the play was a comedy. Lovey and her brother Leonid Gaev played by Samuel Pate, walked off stage arm and arm. They had lost their orchard, but they had each other.  

The second night I attended was faculty night. When two friends and myself decided to go that evening, we had not realized we would be the only students there.  Faculty members from all of the departments enjoyed a glass of wine as they waited to be ushered in. There was a rumble of whispered conversations above the violin playing as the professors and their spouses were seated. The buzz slowly died as the doors were closed and and the lights went out. There was no clapping when the violinist left the room. Already the night felt different. We were not a team with the actors, but a different entity. We were not sharing the space, equally carrying the emotional burden of the show, but outsiders intruding on some of the most challenging moments in the characters’ lives.  

That night the play was a tragedy. We watched as an angry and distraught Lovey stared down her brother Leonid from the opposite side of the room when he declared it was time for them to leave their home. They had lost everything.

Closing night was a perfect medium of the nights before. The actors had become comfortable with the audience, and they put on a fantastic show that gave the audience great conversation between acts about the intent of the playwright and the nature of the characters. All the characters gave a beautiful performance, but Pate’s character stood out to me the most. I’d like to think it was the shared goodbye of a senior leaving the stage in his last performance to go off and join the real world combined with an aristocrat leaving his childhood home to go become a bank employee. It was powerful to watch.

The beauty of the show lay in the actors intimate relationship with their characters.  Through empathetic imagination, the actors grappled with their characters’ temporality. They displayed not just their character’s dynamic potential for emotion, but the mastery of Chekhov as a playwright. This play, proven by this cast to be both true tragedy and true comedy, was written as he faced his own temportality.

Through a Russian cherry orchard the audience is challenged with the question of what it means to live a good life. One can approach that question with both hope and despair, comedy and tragedy.

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