Review: UCSB’s The Cherry Orchard

It all seems like so long ago. In fact it was a week. At last my Cherry Orchard review has been posted.

UPDATE: As the Goleta Valley Voice was bought out by the NewsPress and then shuttered, the article is no longer online. Here’s the archive:

Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’ – the right play at the wrong time?
By D.M. Terrace, Special to the Voice

Mention the playwright Anton Chekhov and the word “slapstick” doesn’t necessarily come to mind. But there it was on stage at the Hatlen Theater Friday night: pratfalls, slip-ups, mistaken identities. Given, Chekhov always saw The Cherry Orchard – his last play, written as tuberculosis ravaged him – as a comedy, a wry look at the inability of the landed gentry in Czarist Russia to see the change that was happening under their own feet.

However, despite some quite good acting from the able student cast, there was a great disconnect between actor (and audience) and the material. The physical comedy seemed to come as a shield to protect everyone from the deeper issues involved. Isn’t this, after all, a play about some stupid people in a large house?

It became apparent that Chekhov’s play is diametrically opposed to our way of life in California. The center of the plot, that of businessman Lopakhin’s desire to sell the estate of Liubov Andreyevna, tearing down the large house, uprooting the of-sentimental-value-only cherry orchard, and building cheap summer rental houses for the vacationing and burgeoning middle class, seems familiar enough. Lopakhin’s a nasty developer, the villain of the piece, if there is one, right?

Wrong. Chekhov empathized with him, saw in people like Lopakhin the ability to change the centuries-old order of things, that through hard work – not empty idealism, like the eternal student Petya – you can change the world.

Central to the play as well is the idea of the future – Petya’s worker’s utopia, Lopakhin’s new economy, Liubov’s new life in France. And maybe that’s the biggest problem, as it’s becoming more and more difficult these days to see the future – there’s entropy and fear instead.

When all your characters appear deluded, why not fall back on comedy?

Director Irwin Appel, adept at staging convincing large crowd scenes as well as calmer, personal ones, keeps the play moving. The set design by Kristie Griffith is impressionistic and works well, just enough to set the tone. There are no weak performances, and a few very good ones: Travis Murray’s Leonid has both the commanding presence and the soft, confused underbelly essential to making him come alive. Michael Phillips makes a perfectly reprehensible Yasha, diverting the audience’s eye whenever he’s on stage. Teri Kretz as main matriarch Liubov is up to the task of being the center of the play, but she, like a majority of the actors here, can’t yet go that extra distance and bring out the pathos in her character. Yes, the play is a comedy, but the characters don’t know that.

But I have faith in the usually excellent Theatre UCSB – come closing night they’ll be living these people, not standing outside looking at them.

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