Talk about good timing.
Theatre by the River and Little Echo Theatre were already planning a co-production of Anton Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard when the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre announced the Russian dramaturge would be the focus of its annual Master Playwright Festival.
"It was really weird timing," said Mel Marginet, Theatre by the River’s artistic director.
The Cherry Orchard runs from Jan. 26 to Feb. 6 at FRAME Art Warehouse (318 Ross Ave.) as part of ChekhovFest.
Translated by Helen Rappaport and adapted to English by Tom Stoppard, the play concerns an aristocratic Russian woman and her family who are deeply in debt following the abolition of serfdom.
"Their cherry orchard is going to be sold by the end of the summer if they don’t come up with a plan to pay off their debts," said Suzie Martin, who is directing The Cherry Orchard.
"The whole play deals with their lack of dealing with their financial crisis and basically failing to save themselves from themselves."
Marginet said Theatre by the River focuses on "artistically provocative, socially significant and financially accessible" theatre, and that The Cherry Orchard fits into its mandate.
"I think where Chekhov is really great is the way the characters are just so identifiable," Marginet said. "Master playwrights get to that point where their plays transcend time, whether you’re setting the play in 2013 or at the turn of the 20th century. You know it’s a good play when the actors in rehearsal are like ‘Oh, it’s just like when I…" We can just relate to it so much, because as humans, we haven’t changed and we haven’t learned."
There’s definitely some wisdom in The Cherry Orchard’s cast though, which is made up of established Winnipeg actors like Marginet, Kevin Klassen and Kevin Anderson, as well as recentUniversity of Winnipeg theatre program graduates Teri-Lynn Friesen and Justin Otto.
"What we really love about the play is because the age range of the characters is so diverse, we really saw it as a great opportunity to have a kind of mentorship opportunity," Marginet said.
"We remember being young actors where basically everything you learned in university is trumpeted within two weeks of working with these seasoned professionals."
"It worked out that we have Blake Taylor in our cast, who is a professor at the U of W and actually taught probably 90% of the cast at some point," Martin adds.
But even seasoned vets like Marginet and Martin learn on the job. Playwrights like Chekhov existed in theatrical boom times, where one could easily hire 25 actors. Little companies like Theatre by the River and Little Echo Theatre don’t have that luxury.
"It’s a challenge, but it also opens up room for cool ideas," Martin said. "I think we have some neat creative solutions that I won’t giveaway. Act Three takes place at a ball where (in Chekhov’s time) you’d have countless extras. We don’t have that, so how do we solve that? It forces you to be creative."