North Coast Repertory Theatre goes for laughs in Anton Chekhov’s classic “The Cherry Orchard.” While it may seem a reach to tickle an audience’s funny bone with a story of an aristocratic Russian family forced to surrender its ancestral home and magnificent orchard, historic documents attest to Chekhov’s intention the play be performed as a comedy. The director of the 1904 world premiere in Moscow, however, had other ideas and delivered a dark tragedy that set audience expectations for more than a century that are hard to unspool.
This is not your daddy’s Chekhov, and on opening night the reaction by the NCRT house was decidedly mixed with some reluctant to embrace the lighthearted tone while others howled with laughter.
The first act takes its best shot at comedic relief with a bevy of characters featuring exaggerated quirks. Among them is Yepikhodov (Jackson Goldberg), a bumbling clerk for the family whose nickname is Twenty-two Calamities; former serf Firs (James Sutorius), an ancient, mumbling manservant whose discomfort with emancipation keeps him tethered to the household that once enslaved him; and bohemian governess Charlotta (Sofia Jean Gomez) who devours lots of cucumbers when she isn’t performing ventriloquy or magic tricks.
They and an assortment of family, friends, rivals, servants and hangers-on are drawn together for the return of Lyubov Ranevskaya (a moving performance by Katie MacNicol) who has come to financial ruin by spending money she no longer has to pave over the pain of divorce, the loss of a child and outright theft by a paramour. Self-made businessman Yermolay Lopakhin (Richard Baird, in a nuanced portrayal), the son of peasants who once worked on the Ranevskaya estate, offers Ranevskaya a logical solution to her dilemma but madam is beyond logic at this point. Her brother Leonid Gayev (a charming slacker played by Bruce Turk) doesn’t help matters.
Also preying on Ranevskaya’s mind are the tangled romances of adopted daughter Varya (Amanda Evans), whose love for Lopakhin goes unrequited, and love-smitten teen Anya (a radiant Riley Osburn) who is willing to run off with radical student Trofimov (Michael Raver). Neighbor Pishchik (played larger than life by Ted Barton) also faces foreclosure on his estate yet thinks nothing of trying to tap Ranevskaya’s purse one more time.
Production values are superb from scenic design (Marty Burnett) to costumes (Elisa Benzoni) to lighting (Matt Novotny). Courtesy of south designer Evan Eason, the story opens with the languid hiss of steam from a locomotive pulling into a station and ends with the body-blow thuds of axes downing trees.
by Lynne Friedmann