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Chicago by John Olson

Cherry Orchard

Cherry Orchard
Amy Morton and Yasen Peyenkov
Early in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, the character Gaev pays tribute to a bookcase owned by his family for the past 100 years by noting the great ideas which have sat on its shelves for the previous century. In the 100th anniversary year of this play, which concerns the difficulty of a formerly wealthy Russian family in adapting to the decline of the aristocracy, Steppenwolf honors it with a production that amazingly continues the piece's contribution to innovation in theatrical technique while remaining entirely respectful of the classic.

This production, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau, builds on the pioneering work in stage realism of Chekhov and Cherry Orchard's first director, Stanislavski, by experimenting with the form of environmental production. Landau and set designer Riccardo Hernandez have dressed the black box Upstairs at Steppenwolf space to place the audience entirely inside the late 19th Century Russian estate of Madame Ranevskaya. White lace fabric is hung from frames surrounding the audience on three sides, to simulate the walls of the estate. On the fourth side, behind the main playing area, the wall is painted white and adorned with family portrait daguerreotypes of the period. The illusion begins as the audience enters the house through a "hallway" created by a wall of lace on the left and a painted white wall, with framed pictures hanging on it, on the right. To continue the illusion, the lighting design by Scott Zielinski keeps the audience generally as well lit as the cast throughout the performance. Two playing areas are found on platforms just behind the audience, but all significant action is entirely performed in front of the audience, which sits on three sides of a main playing area. Homage is paid to the concept of "the fourth wall" as the actors are initially surrounded by four panels of lace, which are gradually rolled off to reveal the main playing area. It's an approach more similar to thrust than environmental, but the sound design gives the production much of its environmental quality.

The sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen is integral to the realism of the staging as well. Speech and sound effects like the noise of a train, the chirping of crickets and the sound of axes beginning to chop down cherry trees can be heard "offstage" from all directions. Some of the sounds come from off stage left and stage right, but many originate behind the lacy panels in back of the audience or in the raised playing areas in the corners between the center and the two side audience sections. Many of the sounds are not "effects" but natural and apparently not amplified. Entrances are presaged by the actors' footsteps. Some of the act three party action places actors in the lobby, heard as if the characters were (as the actors are) in a neighboring room. Most effective is the chilling manner in which the play closes. All of the characters save one leave the condemned house for the last time by exiting to the lobby, closing the auditorium door and audibly locking the audience inside the "house" together with the 87-year-old servant who has inadvertently been left behind and locked inside.

Sheer proximity of the audience to the actors adds to the realism of the piece as well. The Upstairs space seats just 253 and in this seating configuration, no one is more than seven rows from the playing area. Seated on risers of only five to seven rows, most of the audience is close to eye level with the actors, increasing our feeling of inhabiting the same space as the characters. The large playing area and our nearness to it also give Ms. Landau the ability to work with a unusual visual depth of field, compared to a traditional proscenium staging which can flatten out the picture, or even compared to in-the-round or thrust staging that typically has less space in which to work. The playing area allows Landau to sometimes place the characters apart from each other at great distances, implying a sense of isolation between them.

Landau has assembled an exceptional ensemble for the 15-character cast, including five Steppenwolf company members - the largest number to appear onstage together in quite some time - and joined by an equally superb group of Chicago professionals and young newcomers. Each is so perfectly cast you could imagine Chekhov himself participated in the decisions. Amy Morton as Lovey, the landowner about to lose her family estate, is as Chekhov described her, "intelligent, very kind ... feels deeply for everyone she meets." Morton balances the pain and loss of her character with warmth and good humor. Yasen Peyenkov as Lopakin the successful merchant is earthy but not vulgar; sure of himself but kind. Rondi Reed earns some good laughs as the ebullient governess, Francis Guinan as Lovey's brother Gaev is a calming influence in the face of the storm and Robert Breuler ably handles the smaller character roles of the neighbor Pischik and a passerby.

Noted Chicago classical actor Guy Adkins is the silly bookkeeper Yepihodov and provides solid comic relief in the moments his character bumbles about the stage. Ned Noyes, a young Chicago pro who has worked extensively at the Chicago Shakespeare and the Court theaters, is a suitably scruffy and verbose student-revolutionary. Joining these ranks are a number of young non-Equity professionals who fit right in with their castmates. Elizabeth Rich is particularly affecting as Lovey's adult adopted daughter Varya, who should marry the rich merchant Lopakin. Chaon Cross is a lovely and wise-for-her-years daughter Anya, and Ben Vicellio is suitably snaky as the young cad Yasha. Anne Adams as the na´ve young maid Dunyasha and Leonard Kraft as the 87-year-old servant add gentle laughs on opposite ends of the age spectrum.

The cast moves precisely to Landau's complex and tightly choreographed blocking. Characters enter and exit often with overlapping dialogue or action that has little to do with the main action center stage. It's an amazingly balanced cast, yet Yasen Peyenkov as Lopakin draws our greatest attention whenever he's on stage. This is partially because his character is the only one that takes action in the midst of the crisis - most of the others are holding on to the past or looking forward to the future, leaving Lopakin as the only character firmly grounded in and dealing with the realities of the present. Peyenkov, a Bulgarian who speaks fluent Russian, is the only performer who uses an accent on stage and this gives him a central quality as well. Apart from these advantages, Peyenkov gives an incredibly rich portrayal, comic when he is confronting the denial shown by the fading aristocrats and touching in his inability to act on his feelings for Anya. Given the rights parts, Peyenkov (one of the company's newest members) could eventually earn the acclaim given to other Steppenwolf celebrities like Sinise, Malkovich and Kinney.

This Cherry Orchard uses a new translation by Steppenwolf's associate artistic director Curt Columbus, who has now translated Chekhov's four major plays. (Columbus explains in program notes that there are no articles in the Russian language - hence the title of this production forgoes the customary "The" before "Cherry Orchard.") Columbus succeeds in making the language more accessible, but a few anachronisms early in the first half create some momentary confusion. When Lopakin describes his father as a "hick" (a word which seems to sound particularly American), or when Gaev complains of another character, "It's always about him, isn't it?" it seems unclear if he is trying to establish a more contemporary voice for Chekhov. However, the beautifully detailed costumes by Jennifer Roberts and the relative formal tone of speech used by the actors establish a period much earlier than today.

The Upstairs theater used for Cherry Orchard has been a venue for "experimental" and smaller productions of the company and its guests. Cherry Orchard is the first regular subscription show have performed in the space. (They even have a note in their newsletter to tell their subscribers where to find the elevator that will take them up to the Upstairs theater.) To give subscribers sufficient access, Cherry Orchard will have an extended run of 18 weeks. It is a rare opportunity to see a production of such scope in such an intimate space, and to share with Chekhov's an exploration of the possibilities of theatrical technique.

Cherry Orchard will run through March 5, 2005 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Performances are Tuesdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Additional matinee performances will be given on four Wednesdays, including January 19 and 26, and February 2, 9 and 16 at 2 p.m. The performance on Wednesday, December 22 will be sign language interpreted for the deaf and hard of hearing. The performance on January 16 will be audio-described for the blind and sight impaired Tickets are $20 - $60, with $20 rush tickets available one hour before each show. Tickets available online at www.steppenwolf.org by phone at 312-335-1650 or at the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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