Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Play about change, loss remains relevant, but Chekhov's characters not easy to warm up to in nippy warehouse venue

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Lured to an unfamiliar Ross Avenue warehouse, the hardy opening-night audience for The Cherry Orchard was promptly informed that it would be presented promenade style, la Shakespeare in the Ruins (but indoors, thankfully).

The pleasing prospect of innovative staging at ChekhovFest heightened the anticipation of experiencing the Russian playwright's elegiac final play about the inevitability of change and loss. A crowd of about 50 were led to three (one visited twice) makeshift performing areas, but never during the two-hour excursion was there an opportunity to warm up to the story of Lyubov Ranyevskaya, who loses her ancestral estate -- and that beloved cherry orchard -- to Lopakhin, whose ancestors worked for her. And it had nothing to do with the venue's chill, which compelled most patrons to keep their parkas on throughout.

Chekhov concerns himself here with money. Lyubov has spent all of hers on a lover in Paris and returns to the family home to discover it is slated to be sold at a mortgage-foreclosure auction.

The reason for her financial problems are obvious. "There was lots of money in here yesterday," she says, as she digs into her purse. "I've always squandered money without a thought, like some madwoman."

Lopakhin, dressed like the top-hatted rich guy from the Monopoly board game, is waiting to welcome Lyubov and her clueless brother, Gaev. He helpfully attempts to impress upon them the gravity of their situation. He advises that they sell a parcel of land that includes the orchard so summer cottages can be built for the new middle class. They won't hear of it. Unlike Lopakhin, a man on the move keen to embrace the future, they seem doomed to ignore it.

The balance between this two central characters in this production, directed by Suzie Martin, is off. Melanie Whyte's Lyubov is such a childish ninny that viewers identify more with Kevin Klassen's Lopakhin, the too-kind striver representing the new class on the ascendency in Russia. That inequality rears its ugly head in the key scene where Lyubov is on the floor, sobbing with grief at the news she has lost her home, while a giddy Lopakhin is suddenly realizing he is the new master of the house. It should all resonate more sorrowfully, but we have not been invited to care about Lyubov in any way.

Orbiting this pair is a large cast, several of whom create a lasting impression on Daina Leitold's sets, which even allow the audience some time among the cherry trees. Top among them is the exquisite work of Gwendolyn Collins as Lyubov's adopted daughter Varya, who heartbreakingly waits for the marriage proposal that never comes. Toby Hughes has a nice turn as the perpetual student Trofimov, who can see the future of his country but not the outcome of his warming relationship with Anya. Lighter moments are supplied by the likes of Kevin Anderson, who offers a first-rate Firs, the aged servant who is unsteady on his feet and with his place in the new Russian order. Blake Tayor's speechifying Gaev is a gentle fool ever caught up in a phantom billiard match. Derek Lennhouts' Yepikhodov earns his nickname, Catastrophe Corner. The purpose of the mysterious Charlotta in The Cherry Orchard remains a mystery, however.

Tom Stoppard's adaptation, in line with Chekhov's desire, plays up the humour. They both have a laugh at the expense of the stage they love. When Lopahkin tells Lyubov he had been to the theatre to see an amusing comedy she snaps, "Forget the theatre and try staring into a mirror. There you'll see lives that are grotesquely useless and hear ideas so stupid they would make a stone laugh."

She is wrong again, as Chekhov's 1904 classic about a once-wealthy family on the verge of bankruptcy remains relevant for our times.

 

-- -- --

 

Think of A Marriage Proposal as a Chekhovian sitcom circa 1890.

The star of this farce, presented by Merlyn Productions, is a nervous man named Ivan, resplendent in top hat and tails. He has come to his neighbour Stepan's home to propose marriage to daughter Natalia. Stepan is elated by Ivan's intentions, grants his permission and retrieves his daughter so Ivan can pop the question.

The suitor is too scared at first to ask for her hand. During the small talk about why he's come, they get to talking about some land, the ownership of which we quickly learn is in dispute. Of course, they begin to quarrel, even about the best breed of dog, to the point where a distressed Ivan looks like he's going to have a stroke. Later it appears he is dead, but he revives to get his girl.

The ending is never in doubt, as Chekhov's comic set-up has been copied by sitcom writers for generations.

As the twitchy Ivan, Mitch Krohn supplies the required broad physical comedy of a bygone era, while Kelsey Tuma's Natalia is alternately sweet and feisty, but the story's limited appeal means A Marriage Propsal is no cause for celebration.

The opening piece, A Tragedian in Spite of Himself, is another trifle about an overburdened man requesting his friend's revolver so he can end his sorry life. Daniel Gilmour and Nicholas Curry squeeze what they can from this tale of woe, but the comic payoff is, again, paltry.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2014 C12

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