It is march madness for the Ranevskayas, Chekhov's iconic family on the brink of losing their beloved cherry orchard in the current production of The Cherry Orchard at that Off-Off Broadway institution, the T. Schreiber Studio. Under the direction of Terry Schreiber, the volatile family, with all their hangers-on, is on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown.
As adapted by Carol Rocamora, this classic play has wild mood swings between comedy and the tragedy of losing life, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Old servant Firs (Peter Judd) is death on two legs. Matriarchal Lyubov is facing the loss of the family estate. The love of Lopakhin (Jamie Kirmser) and Varya (Aleksandra Statin) is doomed to go unrequited. We suspect that unhappiness will follow both offstage. This Cherry Orchard has a difficult time balancing the tightrope of Chekhov's comedy in four acts. The highs are high, and the lows, well, they are low, but don't worry. The Ranevskayas don't stay down long. There's always a billiards game somewhere. And there is a sock puppet and cucumbers, and servant girls smoking cigars in a lascivious way. That's entertainment. All meant to keep us from taking the demise of the Russian family too seriously.
The Cherry Orchard is a comedy in four acts, as described by Chekhov: there may be no other way to present the buffoonish characters of Gaev (Rick Forstmann), the matriarch's directionless brother, or Yepikhodov (Alec A. Head) whom the playwright and his characters call Mr. Disaster, what with all his pratfalls and the broken teacups that follow his every move. And don't forget Charlotta (Julia Szabo), the unneeded governess. Like the rest of Lyubov's entourage, she continues to occupy place but has no real position except for her parlor tricks. She's the guilty party with lapdog turned sock puppet. In every scene Ms. Szabo seems as if she has wandered in from another play. Maybe Annie Get Your Gun.
It's not all entertainment. At least according to the idealist, Trofimov (Marcus Lorenzo): "And it's all so clear, can't you see, that to begin a new life, to live in the present, we must first redeem our past, put an end to it, and redeem it we shall, but only with suffering, only with extraordinary, everlasting toil and suffering." That Trofimov, he's a laugh riot. It's nothing a sock puppet can't fix, though.
Lyubov Andreevna (Julie Garfield) is on the brink of saying goodbye forever to her childhood home, leaving not only her house but her beloved country of Russia to rejoin a faithless lover who has stolen all her money in Paris. It doesn't seem the time to play games, but this production does. Lyubov, at the height of despair, exits laughing. There had been tears and even catatonia over the loss of her home, but in the end, there's laughter. Well, good for Lyubov, but where does that leave poor Firs and his mournful soliloquy, his existential crisis? Without even a sofa to rest on, the servant is left behind in an absurdist comedy, maybe even Beckett land.
By intermission, we felt comfortable, like we've known this family all our lives. By the end of the play, we feel betrayed by Lyubov, by the fact that we've spent the last two hours with someone who doesn't really deserve (or need) our concern. If she doesn't care about losing her house, why should we? The production plays games with us just as the aristocratic family plays games with each other.
Mr. Schreiber directs the large cast and larger themes through some enchanting moments: the enthusiastic dancing in which problems can be forgotten (choreography by Bronwen Carson), and the magic of Anya's sudden appearance behind Charlotta's "spellbinding" lap robe, for example.
The 1950s theme of the costumes (Dawn Nancy Testa) was particularly effective. It is a fitting era in which to stage The Cherry Orchard. A time of great change in Russia, the liberation of the serfs (as bemoaned by Firs), the opening up of Russia via the railroad, the end of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle class (if they are not too lazy to embrace it) – these are some of the changes we see off-stage. Daughter Anya, dressed as if she liked Ike, is a neat parallel to the American 1950s – the lull before the stormy upheaval of the 1960s.
The performances in general were captivating: Jamie Kirmser as Lopakhin, the capitalist who struggles to make himself heard above the cacophony of Lyubov's life; Laine Bonstein as Anya her daughter who has great hopes for the future and we have great hopes for her; and Dunyasha, portrayed by Ina Marie Smith, whose profile ensures that the servant girl will have many more suitors and won't be forgotten. At least not yet.
The Cherry Orchard runs through April 2nd. The cast also includes Kelly Haran, Robert Pusilo, Marija Stajic-Salvetti, and Adam Swartz.