“Tragedy is Easy, Comedy is Hard”
That famous phrase kept running though my head Sunday night during Raven Theatre's production of Anton Chekov's final play “The Cherry Orchard,” which closed out their 2010-2011 season.
Sadly also running though my head was that Raven Theatre seems to have gotten the comedy down pat but at the expense of the tragedy and theatricality of this piece.
The Cherry Orchard is a play that some companies do the show as a strict drama and some others, most notably the 1977 Lincoln Center production that featured Irene Worth, Raul Julia, Mary Beth Hurt and Meryl Streep as Dunyasha play up the comedic aspects of the piece without sacrificing the drama. However if you play up the comedy then you should up the dramatic aspects of the piece and the aspect that seemed most lacking in this production was the drama within the characters. The cast with a few exceptions seemed to either overplay the comedy or left the drama alone so much that the play fell flat.
The play, tells the tale of the Ranevskayas, a Russian family of fleeting wealth and history whose estate faces financial ruin unless strong measures are taken to save it. With the structure of their way of life crumbling, money has run dry and options are few. When the family matriarch Lyubov Ranevskaya returns from the arms of her freeloading younger lover, a devoted former servant provides a solution. Will the family take action to save their estate and wealth or will they be condemened by their own arrogance and inertia.
Raven's production will draw on the historic parallels of post-emancipation Russia and America, they do this by casting African American actors as the servants to emphasis the class differences that define one's place in society. However the issue this poses is besides that it bothers you that slavery seems to be used as a gimmick it also takes you out of the setting of Russia in the early 1900's.
Besides that the actors seem to be directed to perform their monologues out to the audience instead of dialogue to one another, this is another jarring device that makes it hard to concentrate on the performances.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing in this production. As Lopakhin the families trusted friend Frederick Harris seems to be telegraphing his role to the last role in an intimate theatre, Sophia Menedian delivers her role as the dutiful and lovestruck daughter Anya in a whiny tone that doesn't convey that she is as guilty as her family in the delusions of their future. Jason Huysman as Pishchick is saddled with an unfortunate costume and Ron Quad as Gayev finds humor in Gayev however he misses a lot of the sadness that you should feel for this man. I found Manny Buckley's to lack the sexual confidence that Yasha should have. In the showy leading role of Lyubov Ranevskaya, Joann Montemurro lacked the ability to convey a grand dame that is losing everything. There were certain moments that felt like they could have been played up. Most noticeably when she tears up the letter from her former lover. This was done in an emotionless moment that felt like she was merely tearing up a bill or as she's speaking to Michael Peters student Trofimov, in her speech about love you never felt like she had ever been in love.
There were several bright spots in this production, I found the above mention Michael Peters to be quite impassioned and delivered his lines with conviction. Liz Fletcher playing the farcical Governess Charlotta had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand while as the servants Fernando S. Albiar and Kelli Strickland played the humor of their roles to the hilt. I also enjoyed the work of Helen Young as the put upon adopted daughter Varya. She realized that her role was grounded in tragedy and stayed there.
The Cherry Orchard is a play where it shows the follies of the wealthy and that though their own arrogance bring their problems unto themselves. Raven Theatre was able to make this piece run smoothly but also at the expense of the characters and the dramatic tension of this piece.