Theatre Review – Modern Times Stage Company & Crow’s Theatre/The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

Photo by John Lauener

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! Modern Times Stage Company’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is near perfection.

Modern Times is one of my favourite companies in the city. I particularly love director Soheil Parsa’s take on the classics. He goes right to the heart of the matter, and you come away from a Modern Times production completely satisfied because you have experienced the playwright’s intention in the purist sense. Such is the case of Parsa’s The Cherry Orchard where Chekhov’s human comedy has been stripped down to its rawest edge. Published in 1904, it is the great Russian writer’s last play, and as such, his most ironic, most mocking, and yet, his most loving look at the human condition in all its self-delusional and self-destructive impulses.

One thing is very clear about Parsa. His casting is so clever that it is hard to imagine any other actor playing the role. He chooses his players from all genres of theatre because he is looking for the perfect fit. Many are writers, directors and producers in their own right, and so understand theatre from beyond just an actor’s perspective. One even has a background in Cirque du Soleil. He also gender-bends if he feels that the change-up will give a freshness to the interpretation. The director was one of the first in the city to introduce multiethnic casting, and diversity has been a hallmark of Modern Times during its thirty-year history, a practice continued in this production.

Parsa has directed in a style I would call heightened realism. At first, you think the cast is overacting in speech, physicality and mannerism, but as the play progresses, it becomes clear that the director has made everyone be true to his or her character above all else. As such, the stage is populated by sharply defined individuals, unique unto themselves, which then leads to a clarity of relationships. Overacting it may be, but it works because Parsa is painting Chekhov in hyper-realistic primary colours rather than more naturalistic pastels.

Photo by John Lauener

The heart of the play is Lyubov whom Arsinée Khanjian portrays as a self-confessed frivolous woman, but her underlying pain is very real. Her Lyubov lights up the stage with her generosity and warmth. As Lyubov’s superficial brother Gayev, Cliff Saunders is a snob, never forgetting that he is an aristocrat despite their reduced circumstances. Together, Khanjian and Saunders must make us believe that they are incapable of understanding that there is a way of saving the estate. These fine actors accomplish this feat through Lyubov’s naiveté and Gayev’s detachment.

Photo by John Lauener

The family’s foil is the wealthy merchant Lopakhin representing the rising middle class, whose family was once serfs on the Gayev estate. The gender-bending Oyin Oladejo brings zest and enthusiasm to the role that is often played as vulgar and uncouth. Her innate femininity seems to give Lopakhin a lightness and quickness. You can believe that he is clever. Aaron Willis is the perennial student/tutor Trofimov, the revolutionary and idealist representing the political upheaval to come. In the role, Willis is fearless in his supreme over-confidence and non-stop pontificating.

Strong performances also come from Tara Nicodemo as the hapless Varya, Lyubov’s adopted daughter and housekeeper, who is also one of the few characters with a grip on reality. Keshia Palm makes a lovely soubrette as Lyubov’s daughter, Anya, but she is also courageous and strong, an interesting dichotomy. Alix Sideris plays Anya’s governess Charlotta as eccentric and pragmatic. She may entertain with her card tricks and ventriloquism, but we sense her bitterness. Steven Bush as the elderly neighbour Simeonov-Pishchik, is courtly and aristocratic to a fault. Courtenay Stevens portrays the luckless, disaster-prone estate clerk Yepikhodov. His physical mishaps may be amusing to the household, but you can’t help but pity him.

The three servants are a study in contrast. Lyubov’s valet Yasha (Colin Doyle) is sleazy and opportunistic. The flighty housemaid Dunyasha (Diana Tso) is both a social climber and an attention-seeker, while the loyal, dogmatic, elderly Firs (Andrew Scorer) is a throwback to the past. He actually regrets the freeing of the serfs. Parsa often has Firs standing in frozen stillness somewhere on the stage reminding us of the ancient regime, in contrast to Lopakhin’s New Man, and Trofimov’s dissident.

I just have one small quibble. This being Chekhov, there are a lot of characters to deal with who are listed just by name in the program, rather than with a description of who they are. That’s a lot of figuring out for people not familiar with the play, and could prove a distraction as they work things out. Maybe Parsa wanted some kind of evolutionary revelation to happen, or perhaps he liked the idea of a puzzle of characters, but would it have hurt to list Yepikhodov, for example, as the clerk of the estate.

Photo by John Lauener

This excellent translation of The Cherry Orchard by Elisaveta Lavrova has stripped Chekhov’s more wordy prose down to its nub, and its simplicity underlines Parsa’s approach to the production which is minimalist and stark. Trevor Schwellnus’ set is basically a raised platform surrounded by lacey panels of material which perhaps represent the cherry blossoms. Schwellnus’ lighting is dark and dramatic, and for the most part, the cast carry ornate lanterns, giving the illusion of trying to find a way out of the darkness. Ming Wong’s costumes harken back to the past with laced-up boots and an old-fashioned cut to the clothes, although the women’s dress length is quite short, which places the play for me just before World War One. In the old Soviet Union, Chekhov was considered a harbinger of the revolution to come given the class fault lines he exposed in his works. Placing the costumes in time near the Russian Revolution is a statement in and of itself.

This is Parsa’s second go-round with The Cherry Orchard. In 1997, he adapted the play under the title August 22nd with Modern Times co-artistic director Peter Farbridge, but he was not satisfied artistically with that production. In this masterful iteration, Parsa has given us a definitive interpretation of the play.

Modern Times Stage Company & Crow’s Theatre, The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, translated by Elisaveta Lavrova, directed by Soheil Parsa, Guloien Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, Mar 26 to Apr. 13, 2019.