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From left: Alix Sideris as Charlotta, Keshia Palm as Anya and Tara Nicodemo as Varya in The Modern Stage Company's production of The Cherry Orchard.

John Lauener

  • Title: The Cherry Orchard
  • Written by: Anton Chekhov
  • Translated by: Elisaveta Lavrova
  • Director: Soheil Parsa
  • Actors: Arsinée Khanjian
  • Company: Modern Times Stage Company
  • Venue: Streetcar Crowsnest
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 13

rating

3 out of 4 stars

Toronto’s Modern Times Stage Company has cut The Cherry Orchard down. Cut it down to under two hours without an intermission, that is.

That decision leads to the first thing that seems fresh about Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play in this new production helmed by director Soheil Parsa: momentum.

It feels as if the train that brings Lyubov Ranevskaya home to her Russian estate at the start of the show is the same one that leaves with her whole household in tow at the end. There was never any chance of stopping it, or the czarist times from a-changing.

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Chekhov’s Orchard puts down Canadian roots in this homegrown adaptation

Lyubov (Arsinée Khanjian) has returned after a long, expensive absence in Paris because her land, house and orchard are set to be auctioned off to pay the mortgage.

That will end a way of life not only for members of her aristocratic family such as brother Gayev (Cliff Saunders) and daughter Anya (Keshia Palm), but the various servants who work for them from old and loyal Firs (Andrew Scorer) to young and resentful Yasha (Colin Doyle).

Lopakhin (Oyin Oladejo), a businessman only one generation out of serfdom, is the only one with a plan to keep this world going somehow: Chop down the cherry orchard and sell cottages to vacationers.

But no one really seems that eager to adopt Lopakhin’s solution, or indeed adapt in any other way. There’s nothing to do but to bicker, philosophize, flirt, dance and drink until the train pulls out of the station.

Chekhov’s an artist associated with naturalism, but Parsa has put his own directorial signature on his production.

It has the feeling of a ritual. Indeed, upon entering the theatre, it looks as if we are here to, in fact, watch the play The Cherry Orchard be sacrificed to the gods rather than be staged.

Designer Trevor Schwellnus’s set is a large black rectangular altar of sorts, two steps to the top, sitting like an island in the middle of the Streetcar Crowsnest stage. It stays mostly bare for the entire play and there are minimal props – but new rugs get rolled out on top of the altar each scene, like prayer mats.

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The traumatic legacy of serfdom on all the classes is palpable throughout this production.

John Lauener/Handout

Behind is a backdrop of stars that come into view whether a scene is actually set at sunrise or sunset, indoors or outdoors. It’s always twilight here in the twilight of czarist Russia.

It’s a fitting environment given that Parsa seems more interested in some of the symbolic or proto-absurdist elements in Chekhov’s writing (translated, here, by Elisaveta Lavrova).

For example, the famous sound of the breaking string that disconcerts the characters in the second act here is not a subtle sound in the distance, but a loud alarm accompanied by an unsettling shift in the lights.

The performances are stylized, too. The actors all act as if in their own little plays, an illustration of how self-absorbed or perhaps shell-shocked Chekhov’s characters are.

As Lyubov, Khanjian even dances on her own at one point – but, in an anxious frenzy, not as if no one is watching.

The Ararat actress’s performance is a poignant, layered one. She seems so pathetic on the surface, following men only interested in her money around Europe, wearing clothes and a haircut too young for her – but, beneath, I always felt the depth of her grief for her son who died in the river that cuts through the estate.

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Another resonant performance comes from Oladejo as Lopakhin - who always seems a little stunned that he’s free and not a forced labourer like his father was. His obsession with work and his refusal to act on his feelings for Lyubov’s adopted daughter Varya (Tara Nicodemo) seem due to a need to keep moving and avoid engaging emotionally to survive.

The traumatic legacy of serfdom – what the student Trofimov (Aaron Willis) calls owning people’s souls – on all the classes is palpable throughout this production.

The minor characters fascinate more than usual – such as Courtenay Stevens’s clownish Yepikhodov, unable to figure out his own two feet in this shifting world; and Alix Sideris’s swaggering Charlotta, like a Mae West character, bored out of her mind to have somehow ended up in a Chekhov play.

Then there’s Scorer, whose rumbling, mumbling performance as Firs, left behind alone at the end, seems like the final answer to the question: If an old tree falls in an orchard and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

This may not be a definitive Cherry Orchard, but it is a thoughtful, intriguing one from this company that follows its own path.

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