“Handsome and entertaining” Chekhov classic takes to the Toronto stage
Two years ago, I fell madly in love with The Chekhov Collective’s production of The Seagull. It was my first experience of Chekhov and it greatly impressed me. With much anticipation, I found myself back in the Berkeley Street Theatre for their production of Anton Chekhov’s final play The Cherry Orchard.
Now, I have mixed feelings about Chekhov. I was certainly amazed by this company’s production of The Seagull. Then, a year later, I saw another production that approached the material as intense melodrama with gratuitous use of heavy-handed, ominous foreshadowing and I hated it. I realized Chekhov can be very, very tedious.
This company, however, handles Chekhov with a lightness of tone that allows poignant truths to rise to the surface organically. There are no hysterics. There is a great deal of sadness, yes, but it weaves in and out of the characters without fanfare.
The play takes place shortly after the abolition of serfdom. An aristocratic Russian family returns to their estate as it is auctioned off to pay for the mortgage. Assembled there are servants and extended family and a former serf. They get lost in memories about the old way of life as they drift about this old house and ponder the vast cherry orchard.
Of the ensemble cast of thirteen, there were a couple of players that failed to convince me. Nina Gilmour as a giddy, lovestruck maidservant seems particularly out of place. Where most of the cast is naturalistic, she gives us grand gestures and forcefully precise diction. I think it’s meant to be her character—a servant putting on airs—but I wish I had a glimpse of what was hiding beneath the playacting.
As the aristocratic matriarch and her brother, Rena Polley and Richard Sheridan Willis are standouts.
My guest pointed out that Willis perfectly captures that slightly offbeat persona of the bored rich. As silly as it all sounds, I was charmed by his frequent rhapsodizing. There is a very funny and poignant moment where he delivers an impassioned speech to an old bookcase.
Polley is equally endearing as a completely impractical dreamer, a woman holding onto the happy aspects of her past while trying to forget the one great tragedy. Sometimes it’s just a simple turn of her head and the mood changes across the entire stage.
Thrown into this collection of family and servants is Andrew Pogson’s merchant. He is a former serf, now trying desperately to pull Polley’s character out of her reverie and make the practical decisions that would lead to her to financial stability. It’s amusing to watch him, high on his newly acquired riches, determined to stay buoyant and optimistic amidst people he considers foolish.
The Upstairs space at the Berkeley Street Theatre is very wide and Director Dmitry Zhukovsky and Set Designer Dimitrii Khilchenko use it well. There is very little action in Chekhov’s theatre; the characters are always looking inward. That constant reflection is staged here as a grand panorama. The all-white, decorative flourishes that clutter the stage give a dreamlike quality to a lifestyle that is about to fade away as the architecture of that lifestyle is dismantled.
Chekhov is not for everyone. His characters can be frustrating, as if they consciously choose to be miserable or else defiantly self-indulgent. If you are experiencing him for the first time, this is the company you want to be your guide. They don’t indulge in the dramatics that can make Chekhov seem overblown and silly.
- The Cherry Orchard is playing until February 14, 2016 at the Berkeley Street Theatre (25 Berkeley Street).
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.
- Tickets are $28 to $48
- Tickets can be purchased online @thecheckhovcollective, by phone (416-368-3110) or in person at the box office.
Photo of the full cast by Miriana Mitrovich