The Cherry Orchard Theatre Review - Botanicum's Production of Chekhov's Final Play Captivates Using New Southern Interpretation

Velina (Tippi Thomas) comforts Anna (Willow Geer)

(Topanga, CA) August 22, 2009 – Shakespeare purists believe that his plays should be performed verbatim and in period dress, without any kind of deviation or “re-invention” whatsoever. Therefore, if there were any productions that would have Richard III take place in socialist Germany, or Titus Andronicus in fascist anachronistic Rome, or Othello in a high school during present-day America, they would be frowned upon and viewed as a sacrilege to The Bard’s genius. However, what these elitists fail to realize is that Shakespeare---as well as other literary masters, including (most appropriately) Anton Chekhov---has an eye and ear for universal themes that transcends time. When one of his plays is adapted for a certain historical period and it somehow enhances the text’s theme, then the overall theatrical experience for both actor and audience can be spellbinding and quite profound. And this kind of Shakespearean “reinvention” has proven successful many times, both theatrically and cinematically.

But now we come back to Chekhov. Is it possible to “freely adapt and reset” the Russian setting of his final play to 1970’s Virginia and still maintain his powerful message regarding the oblivious emotional denial of the Bourgeois and the rise and possible corruption of the working class? The answer is simply this: it depends on the writers, those who carefully adapt and tailor the text, meticulously transforming its form, yet never its substance. In lesser hands, it would be a disaster. But at the Will Geer Theatre, it proves to be victorious. The Theatricum Botanicum's gamble of adapting and re-imagining THE CHERRY ORCHARD for 1970 Virginia succeeds, courtesy of the superb acting, smooth direction, and especially the writing talents of Director Heidi Helen Davis and its star, Ellen Geer.

Terence (Marc Ewing) is shocked as Lillian (Ellen Geer) reveals the truth about himself

In this particular Chekhovian world, the Ranevsky Clan of 19th Century Russia is now the Randolphs of 1970’s Virginia ( Davis and Geer changed all character names, leaving subtle connections and hints between the two interpretations). After a five year self-imposed exile to Paris in order to grieve the loss of her son, Lillian Randolph ( Ellen Geer) returns to her estate, along with her daughter, Anna ( Willow Geer), their valet Buck ( Matt Van Winkle) and their German governess, Carlotta ( Melora Marshall). They are also met by Lillian’s brother, Gates ( William Dennis Hunt), their spendthrift neighbor Parnel ( Jerry Hoffman) and the caretakers of the estate: Lawrence Poole ( Steve Matt) and Lillian’s adopted daughter, Velinda ( Tippi Thomas). Although all welcome the Randolph clan after their hiatus, a sense of dread cannot help but creep in and shatter their idyllic setting. Their property is about to be auctioned in order to pay for an untold number of debts. Lawrence warns them that in order to insure they don’t lose their property, they must sell their valued cherry orchard for summer cottage development. But much to the chagrin of the caretakers, Lillian, Gates, and the rest of the upper class continue to live in a state of perpetual nostalgia, reminiscing of how their home has been in the family for generations since before the Civil War. They splurge their money on parties and behave in various stages of careless bohemia until they lose their home to a descendant of the slaves that worked with the Randolph Clan since the beginning: Lawrence Poole. And here, we see how power is lost and how it can also corrupt.

Carlotta (Melora Marshall) predicts Anna's (Willow Geer) future, as Velina (Tippi Thomas) looks on

The transformation from the original text to the update is flawless in terms of the consistency of dialogue, character development, and especially the parallels regarding class conflict (from the Russian culture to the aftermath of the civil rights movement). And bravo once again to Davis and Geer for the painstaking research needed for this adaptation. Davis as director keeps the pace of the play ongoing, perhaps even faster than a normal Chekhovian production. There is an extensive set change after every act and the results don’t drag in the least. In fact, one of the most memorable scenes is after Act One where the audience is entertained by Carlotta (an exotically eccentric Melora Marshall) playing an autoharp while quietly singing a song of her forgotten youth.

The acting from all in the cast is impressive. The supporting players make their presence known during key moments of the show. Willow Geer’s Anna exudes sweet innocence and determination in her attraction towards the emotionally distant Terence (a charismatic Marc Ewing), who was once the tutor of her deceased brother. Jerry Hoffman is hilarious as the less-than-financially reliable Parnell, who gets the last laugh when it comes to paying his debts. And J.R. Starr is heartbreaking as the aging manservant, Fred, who preferred the routine and financial stability of slavery than the frightening uncertainty of freedom. His resulting fate is a sad footnote to the play.

Parnel (Jerry Hoffman) tries to borrow money from Lawrence (Steve Matt)

But the three leads of the cast shine in their own talented glory. Steve Matt’s Lawrence is a pleasure to watch as we witness his full emotional spectrum: his maddening frustration when trying to help his employers, his flirtatious charm with Velina (an incredibly dynamic Tippi Thomas), and his sarcastic wit towards Fred. But the moment he confesses to buying the land from the Randolphs, Matt changes with the new power his possesses. He masterfully reveals his pain and sorrow regarding the racism his family has experienced throughout their lives. But this agony transforms into a prideful rage, resulting in the pleasure of tearing down the sacred cherry orchard, the last remnant of the Randolph legacy. William Hunt’s Gates is a boisterous blowhard who talks on and on about the family myths and legends. But that verbosity covers his own fear at the thought of being financially reduced to “the middle class.” And when the final blow is dealt by Lawrence, Hunt is sunken and pale with defeat.

Crowning the production is Ellen Geer’s Lillian, a woman who has been used by the men in her life and has experienced the ultimate nightmare that any mother fears: the death of her own child. Geer hides that pain of the past by trying to deny the pain of the future: the loss of her home.  But through these trials, Geer never portrays Lillian as a victim. She shows strength and stands on her own with Gates and she gives Terrence a “corrective interview” when she reveals the young man’s lack of experience regarding true, unconditional love. And even when she loses her home and leaves for one last time, Geer demonstrates her heroine’s grace and dignity. And it is these two qualities that THE CHERRY ORCHARD possesses, as well as bittersweet humor and an incredible, in-depth social commentary.

Lillian (Ellen Geer) reminisces with her brother, Gates (William Dennis Hunt)

 
The Cherry Orchard opened June 27 (Saturday night) and runs to September 26 (Saturday night)
 
Tickets:  $10-$30

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
310-455-3723
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA  90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura [101] freeway)

online: http://www.theatricum.com/

Photos by: Miriam Geer

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