The ghost of Anton Chekhov has been haunting area stages lately, what with last fall’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, an absurdist Christopher Durang comedy-parody at the Denver Center, and the Boulder Ensemble’s recent Stupid Fucking Bird, in which playwright Aaron Posner closely follows the plot of The Seagull — but from a satirical, meta-theatrical perspective. Now theater-goers can experience the famous writer himself with Germinal Stage’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Directors have been trying to decide for decades whether Chekhov’s works should be staged for comedy or tragedy, but Chekhov himself was clear: They’re funny. And he was infuriated by the first production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Stanislavksi in 1904: “Not once does my Anya cry,” he wrote of one of the characters in a letter, and “nowhere do I speak of a tearful tone.” But there’s no denying the deeply touching moments that occur in The Cherry Orchard, the pity — tinged with weary mockery — evoked by the lovelorn state of some of the characters and their wistful understanding that nothing in life will ever really go right for them.
This production is pretty funny, though in a muted way. You smile at everyone’s cluelessness and grin at the unexpected rudeness of the characters’ frequent admonitions to each other to “shut up.” Is this true to the Russian culture of the time, you wonder, or is the translation a little off? The program doesn’t credit a translator but says the version we’re seeing is “adapted, directed and designed” by artistic director Ed Baierlein. There are occasional words that feel out of place, as if the script had been updated but not as far as the present day. The comedy is never raucous or slapsticky, however, and the melancholy is here, too — though at no point do you find yourself really empathizing with any of the characters. Perhaps the most enchanting character is the beautifully described cherry orchard itself, which we understand from the beginning will soon fall to the ax. It is the source of the deepest love and also the deepest pain for the central character, Lubov, the mistress of the house. It was here that she grew up and here that her young son drowned some years earlier.
Stephen R. Kramer, Eric Victor, Lisa Mumpton and Leroy Leonard in The Cherry Orchard.
Soon after the play’s opening, Lubov returns home from Paris, where she has been living with a feckless lover, having been fetched by her seventeen-year-old daughter, Anya, and Charlotta, the governess. She is warm and generous-spirited, but entirely impractical — and in this she represents the doomed Russian aristocracy. There to greet her is Lopahin, among others. The son of a serf, he has become a wealthy businessman, and he has practical advice for Lubov: Sell the orchard to pay off her debts and have it converted into lots for villas.
Class and historical change are major themes here. Lopahin can be seen as either a practical man trying to be helpful or a model of the kind of soulless, rapacious businessman whose work destroys the past and blights the future. Lubov’s brother Gaev is even more out of it than she is. He talks incessantly, sometimes to articles of furniture. Eternal student Trofimov dreams Marxist dreams and courts Anya, though he insists that both she and he are “above love.” Lubov’s adopted daughter, Varya, occupies a middle ground between master and servant, and the other servants often don’t act like servants, but seem to be testing the limits of their traditional roles. Faithful, feeble-minded old Fiers, however, laments the emancipation of Russia’s serfs and remains ready to serve the family to his dying breath.
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For all the speeches, no one really listens to anyone else. “I do want to talk,” declares demented governess Charlotta, “but it seems nobody wants to talk back.”
Cut to a compact couple of hours and staged in an equally compact space now occupied by Baierlein’s Germinal Stage, this production provides a brisk, intimate, amusing perspective on The Cherry Orchard, with particularly effective performances from Lisa Mumpton as Lubov, Leroy Leonard as Gaev, Karin Carr as Anya and Eric Victor as Pishchik, another weak, once-wealthy landowner. What it doesn’t do is communicate the depth and nuances of the original.
The Cherry Orchard, presented by Germinal Stage through May 3. 73rd Avenue Playhouse, 7287 Lowell Boulevard, Westminster, 303-455-7108, germinalstage.com.