Irony and absurdity in ‘The Cherry Orchard’
Post Independent Arts Writer
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
CARBONDALE, Colorado – It’s clear. “The Cherry Orchard,” Thunder River Theatre Company’s (TRTC) newest production, is not a knee-slapping laugh riot. Anton Chekhov was not known for writing punchline-laden comedies.
But according to Lon Winston, TRTC’s executive artistic director and the play’s director, neither is it a morose drama.
“First of all, it is not depressing,” said Winston of the play, which previewed last night, Feb. 23, and opens tonight, Feb. 24 for a nine-date run.
“I do not believe that tragedy is depressing. On the contrary – as the Greeks believed 2,500 years ago – tragedy is uplifting, cathartic. It is the very basis of our heritage of Western civilization. ‘The Cherry Orchard’ is both comedy and tragedy,” he said.
The storyline is set in early 20th century Russia, but could easily be about the Roaring Fork Valley region circa 2012. It follows the Ranyevskaya family, who were once wealthy and honored, but now face losing their ancestral property.
“It’s like if a family owned the Redstone Castle and all the land around it for miles,” Winston said. “They are in foreclosure and they get an offer to sell portions of their cherry orchard to build vacation homes.
“The play deals with foreclosure, the inability to pay one’s mortgage, incredible loss, inevitable change, and watching a new world emerge. All the characters are recognizable today.”
For Chekhov, these types of trials and challenges his characters face set up ironic situations between people. So, in the context of a Chekhov play, “comedy” means more of a subtle, absurd humor than the side-splitting variety.
“Chekhov did believe ‘The Cherry Orchard’ was a comedy,” Winston said. “But not comedy the way we have come to know it. He believed that the ludicrousness of how characters treated each other, the life they put out front for all to see, was comic.”
According to Winston, when “The Cherry Orchard” first opened at the Moscow Art Theatre in January 1904, the play received a lukewarm reception, mostly because its first director treated it like a social tragedy. After Chekhov expressed his dissatisfaction with the interpretation, the play re-opened in April 1904 and became a great success. It was the last play Chekhov wrote.
“It’s a masterpiece,” said Winston, who has directed and designed other Chekhov plays. He considers “The Cherry Orchard” to be Chekhov’s greatest work and “arguably one of the finest plays written in the 20th century.”
On the night of Feb. 19, about a dozen cars were parked in the lot behind Thunder River Theatre in downtown Carbondale. No performances were scheduled; however, inside, the place was alive.
With just four days to go before “The Cherry Orchard” previewed, the production’s cast and crew were busy working out last-minute kinks. For one, motivations for various parts in the script needed defining.
“It’s about the inability of the classes to communicate,” Winston told the cast and crew. “It’s ludicrous. It’s absurd. It’s about irony, so it’s funny on a completely different level.”
“We’re absurd,” said actor Richard Lyon who plays Leonid, a brother, with a laugh. “So that’s what we connect with.”
Meanwhile, a hole in a costume’s pocket needed mending, and one of the prop tables set up backstage needed a lamp.
Lighting and sound designer Brad Moore was particularly busy.
“You can see why I can never finish anything,” said Moore with a smile as he got up from his light and sound table to duct-tape a cable out of the way backstage that was tripping up some of the cast.
Meanwhile, actor Kait Mushet, who plays stepdaughter Varya, was practicing hitting fellow actor Jeff Carlson, who plays the businessman Lopakhin, over the head with a cane.
Other actors ran through vocal exercises, walking back and forth across the stage, speaking to no one.
As Winston called for the run to begin, Olivia Savard, the assistant backstage manager, frowned a little when asked what it felt like to almost be ready for opening night.
“I’m sad,” she said, smiling slightly, too. “We started on Jan. 8, five weeks ago. I’ll miss this family, this energy.”
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