Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard blooms in Orleans

Written by Bethany Gibbons, Barnstable Patriot

Orleans’ Elements Theater Company has brought The Cherry Orchard to the salt marsh with their six-performance run of Anton Chekhov’s final play, set amidst the social and economic upheaval of turn of the 20th century Russia. While the subject matter includes the freeing of the serfs, the action centers on a more familiar event: the foreclosure auction of an aristocrat’s estate. Elements’ portrayal is both beautifully constructed and superbly acted, and the company pulls together a seamless depiction of a family falling apart.

Originally performed at the Moscow Theater in 1904, The Cherry Orchard was written in the last year of Chekhov’s life as a comedy, and some might see it as a farce intended to lampoon the idle rich. The show’s first director, Constantin Stanislavski, insisted on developing the work as a tragedy, despite Chekhov’s protests, and ever since audiences have been treated to a more “weepy” version, to paraphrase Chekhov’s description.

Elements manages to bridge the gap between comedy and tragedy, bringing both into focus. The confusion and distress of the heartbroken aristocrats is clearly translated even as the playwright pokes fun at their general ineptitude. Joyful ribbing takes place throughout the performance; Elements lets the zingers fly and keeps the laughs coming, even as the estate heads inexorably toward the chipper.

The cast is large and boisterous, with 16 characters and a dog, and Elements adds an original touch with nine dancers performing as cherry trees and axe-men bookending the show. A hidden quintet of The Community of Jesus’ masterful musicians provides accompaniment in the form of reeds, strings and piano.

The set is a carefully constructed interior with stairs and balconies leading to doorways at stage right and left and more doors at the back of the stage, and the scenery is perfectly appointed with matryoshka and toy soldiers for the nursery, and a giant chandelier for the drawing room. A meadow is created with only a scrim draped over large lattice panels during the first act. Designers Hans Spatzeck-Olsen and Amy Mitchell benefited from a 33-member construction team and a six-person interior decorating ensemble. Fifteen people put together the period costumes, and 13 handled make-up for the performances, and all the hands together crafted a piece of beauty.

Chris Kanaga is convincing as Yermolay, a merchant and son of one of the estate’s former slaves who finds himself in the fortunate position of having much more money than the estate’s owner. Danielle Dwyer carries the show with her impassioned portrayal of the down-on-her-luck widow and estate owner, Lyubov, who returns from her lover in France to watch helplessly as her property is forced into auction.

Ellen Ortolani plays a refreshing Anya, Lyubov’s daughter, who pines for a free-thinking life with her perennial-student love interest Pyotr. Kyle Norman provides an earnest performance as Pyotr. Norman’s student gets some of the best lines when Chekhov waxes Bolshevik philosophy through him. The unemployed penniless student asks, “Should a man be proud?” and goes on to answer that he should not, but instead should work. “Intellectuals don’t know how to work. The intelligentsias philosophize and play while the workers live in poverty and filth.” He then declares, “I mistrust serious conversations.” He also discusses the spiritual debt the family must repay and atone for having owned slaves.

Rachel McKendree is delightfully frustrated as Lyubov’s adopted daughter Varya, a more serious young woman who oversees the estate and hopes for a proposal from Yermolay. Chekhov draws wonderful portraits of the servants and employees of the estate, and they are all very well depicted by this company. Brother Stephen Velie is particularly likeable and funny as Yepikhodov, the orchard’s clerk. Peter Haig is a delight as the broke landowner Simeonov, who constantly borrows from Lyubov, even as they despair at the estate’s fate.

Chekhov pulls from his own life to create this tableau. Yermolay describes his father’s inebriated violence and cruelty, a description suited to Chekhov’s own father. Lyubov’s financial bankruptcy mirrors Chekhov’s mother’s financial, emotional and physical brokenness. His parents’ home in Taganrog was sold to pay the mortgage. Chekhov also had planted his own cherry orchard at a home outside Moscow, but later found most of it cut down by a new owner.

While his last play is not autobiographical, there is an echoing of themes, characters and scenes from both his work and his own life that makes The Cherry Orchard a must-see for anyone interested in the life and work of Chekhov.