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Chicago by John Olson

The Cherry Orchard
Raven Theatre

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The Cherry Orchard
Sophia Menendian and
Michael Morgan Peters

Chekhov may not be the first playwright to come to mind when looking for a light summer entertainment, but the story goes that he intended The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy and was shocked to see Stanislavski stage it as a drama in its first production in 1904. For this production by Raven Theatre, Director Michael Menendian has followed Chekov's original intent, with his cast playing the comic elements rather broadly and physically. Working from a translation by Jean Claude van Italie, he's even pared down the script and stepped up the actors' pace so that the piece comes in at just over two hours, including a fifteen-minute intermission. It's a valid interpretation and merits a visit by those who know the play, just to see it from a different angle. As an introduction to the piece for first-timers it may not fully communicate the historical significance or human drama of the story—in which a family of Russian nobles loses their estate to a former serf, presaging the societal upheaval to a single class that the Communist Revolution later promised.

Chekhov had a skewed sort of sympathy for his characters—seeing them as foolish, but having compassion for them as well. Menendian's interpretation is built around a kind but na´ve and childlike Madame Ranevskaya, played as a somewhat dotty matron by Joanne Montemurro. She seems not to comprehend the probability that she will lose the estate and when she does, one senses she'll be just as happy moving back to Paris and returning to the man with whom she'd been having an affair. Similarly oblivious is Daughter Anya (Sophia Menendian) and perpetual student Trofimov (Michael Morgan Peters), who are in love and seem not to care about much else. Ranevskaya's brother Gayev (Ron Quade) and adopted daughter Varya (Helen Young) have a more realistic sense of the situation, but we don't get as involved in their stakes as we might with so much focus on the funnier characters.

The estate's clerk, Yepikhodov (Fernando Albiar), is a stumbler and bumbler, and Albiar plays the physical comedy broadly. The maid Dunyasha is played by Kelli Strickland to be blindly in love with Yasha, Ranevskaya's egotistical manservant, but in this edited script there's not as much opportunity for actor Manny Buckley to fully develop the character. We see his selfishness but not enough of what might have attracted Yasha to him. The neighbor Pishchik, as financially troubled as Ranevskaya's family, is a sweet, but drunken fool played by Jason Huysman disguised behind a long beard. Lophakin, the former serf who buys the estate, but only after giving the family a chance to preserve some of their wealth by selling it off first, is played as a largely self-absorbed and crudely nouveau-riche businessman by Frederick Harris. Anya's governess, Charlotta, is a sexy and appealing clown—constantly entertaining the family and diverting them from their financial worries—in the hands of Liz Fletcher. Rounding out the cast are a sweetly funny David Adams as the feeble old servant Firs and Carthy Dixon as a vagrant.

The estate is pictured nostalgically by set designer Andrei Onegin, and the lovely costumes are by Joelle Beranek. Sound design by Melissa Schlesinger adds sound effects to establish setting and Amy Lee's lighting design places the action and clearly at the times of day and late spring through early fall seasons Chekov specifies. There's also a haunting original incidental score by Leif Olsen and an energetic second act opening dance number choreographed by Brigitte Ditmars.

The production design, together with the light-hearted approach taken by Menendian, may bring to mind Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night as much as Chekhov, but Chekhov came first and maybe he was an influence on Bergman. Like the summer night, in The Cherry Orchard, Chekov smiles on the young, the old and the foolish and if this production delivers some smiles on a hot Chicago summer night, there's nothing so wrong with that.

The Cherry Orchard will run through July 23, 2011, at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. Ticket information is at www.raventheatre.com or 773-338-2177.


Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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-- John Olson



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