When I critique a stage play, I consider both the work and the production. A worthy play may get a mediocre or problematic staged treatment. A clumsy or dated, predictable play sometimes surprises with a wonderful enlivenment. It’s not often I see shows that balance out both aspects, for better or for worse. The productions that excel in both aspects are the shows I never forget. (Uptown Players’ Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang comes to mind, a spirited modern work with classical vibe) When I encounter a show that falls into the “for worse” category, I ‘m saddened.
This is where I find myself with Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, adapted with effective clarity by Ben Schroth and produced by The Classics Theatre Project through July 14 at the Trinity River Arts Center. Joey Folsom directs. It’s Chekhov’s final play (1903), revered as a major defining work heralding in the social upheaval of the early 20th century. Many translations tend towards academic turgidity. Schroth’s adaptation strips away much of the florid nonsense. I hope his adaptation gets a production that does it justice some day.
The Cherry Orchard is considered a “tragicomedy”, with serious subject matter and a repetitive plot incorporating bits of not particularly funny comedy. Maybe it was funny, performed in Russian, to the audiences of the early 20th century. Not so much now. It needs a knowledgeable, versatile director’s firm guidance to make it tangibly unified as a work of art fit to please today’s sophisticated audience. The disjointed bits can render the play’s characters labored and cartoonish, even in serious moments, making little congruent sense. In this production it’s very difficult to care about any character. Or about that titular orchard. The entire plot arc gets revealed early on and re-stated, over and over. In Act Two it’s just more of the same… no reversals, no twists, no deep revelations, just frenetic bits juxtaposed against gloomy, tunnel vision, endless stretches of folderol and storming in and out, up and down.
TCTP’s production spans the full width and breadth of the Trinity River Arts Center’s thrust space, built on several levels. A sparse scattering of set pieces loosely define acting areas, some set so needlessly far upstage that actors’ key moments and expressions get lost to the audience. The loud clomping of boots and heels permeates the production, given the platformed expanse and stair elements actors must traverse. There is no visual sense of a “cherished home” the characters wax nostalgic about in the script with this set. Is it dilapidated, crowded with family antiques, or full of light with wide-open windows overlooking the never seen orchard or dark and dank, shut down as if waiting for inevitable demise? Is it daytime? Night? Winter? Summer? A clearly defined environment with mood-inducing lighting would help define the reality of the world of this play and help keep the cherry orchard present as a focal, unifying element. Instead it’s undefined, bland, sprawling and noisy.
Performances: Always a pleasure to watch seasoned actors like Emily Scott Banks, Stan Graner, Francis Fuselier, Taylor Harris and James Prince explore nuggets of common humanity on stage. I respect their breadth of skill and talent, even in this wayward production. The delightful Mary-Margaret Pyeatt wanders through on occasion, playing the family governess as if performing in a Noel Coward comedy. Younger actors do not fare well. They seem blocked but not directed; none display any idea of how to play people living in the show’s era, in movement or voice. There is a real sense of historical anchoring in the writing that the seasoned actors honor even when not costumed “period”. The kids simply don’t get it. One character spends an entire scene trying to close, dropping and tripping over a huge jumble of suitcases, plopped center stage. The actor’s energy is commendable, exuding bumbling resignation; but he upstages anything else going on like a YouTube video at full volume in a loop. Perhaps he is supposed to be funny. He isn’t. The play’s final moment arrives, with the sick old servant (Francis Fuselier, giving the most measured, believable performance in the cast)) finding himself forgotten and locked inside his former mistress’ home. He collapses center stage. Do you laugh? Do you rail with outrage? Or do you just shrug and leave? The abandonment and death of a sweet old man, a generation’s values and the beloved orchard destroyed, once so vital, in the face of the future’s soul-crushing expediency, should inspire tears.
The Classic Theatre Project’s next production is August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.
Photo: Evan Michael Woods