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Cherry on top

UM cultivates Chekhov's Orchard just right

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Acclaimed Russian writer Anton Chekhov's final play is famous for its conflicting tonal duality and the vast range of interpretations that have been applied to it by directors like experimental innovator Peter Brook and New York Civic Repertory Theatre founder Eva Le Galliene. As the story goes, Chekhov originally conceived The Cherry Orchard as a comedy and was appalled when director Constantin Stanislavski reinterpreted the first production of his work as a tragedy at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1907.

Since this initial performance, writers and directors have strived to maintain the complex contradictions of Chekhov's last documented curtain call. With the exception of a few stylistic oddities and bizarre musical choices, the UM School of Theatre & Dance's rendition of the Tom Stoppard version of The Cherry Orchard is brimming with rich, memorable performances and does tremendous justice to the unassuming yet somewhat schizophrenic legacy of Chekhov's swan song.

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Taking place at a family estate in a provincial town in the northwestern region of Russia during the early 1900s, The Cherry Orchard follows the struggles of Madame Lyubov and her family after the abolition of serfdom that sparked tremendous change in Russia. Like many members of the aristocracy during this time, Lyubov and her daughters must come to terms with the loss of their wealth and social standing even as members of the lower class, many of whom served the family as servants, now begin to occupy the coveted positions that the aristocrats once held. The show's titular orchard is the focal point of the estate and the symbol of the tale's changing-of-the-guard class struggle.

A significant amount of words could be dedicated to the varied, engaging performances of the production's talented and amiable ensemble and, even still, a number of fantastic actors and actresses would regrettably get left out. That's how many noteworthy performances this particular production contains. Nick Pavelich, resembling a lanky, scarecrow-esque Edgar Allan Poe, is a comedic revelation in the role of Yepikhodov, nailing the awkwardness and deadpan delivery of Mr. Catastrophe Corner himself. Rebecca Schaffer radiates all the appropriate bombast and irreverence of governess and improvisational ventriloquist Charlotta. She manages to project even while chewing on a pickle (no small auditory feat). Oh, and that dog!

Peter Philips makes quite an impression with his subtle and understated yet appropriately curmudgeonly turn as Firs, particularly during the play's final, poignant scene. But it's ultimately Kristen M. Beckmann who steals the show as the The Cherry Orchard's proud, tragic lead Lyubov. Resembling a considerably younger Jessica Walter, Beckmann switches from playful and flirtatious to melancholy and remorseful on a dime. Her magnetic stage presence suggests that she could carry the entire production herself if it became necessary, and her performances during the scenes in which Lyubov recalls her young son who has drowned are genuinely moving.

Praise should certainly be given to director John Kenneth DeBoer, who displays mastery of the delicate and, at times, challenging source material. DeBoer's naturalistic stage direction, coupled with scenic designer Matt Gibbons's simplistic yet achingly atmospheric set design (making use of real tree bark!) elevates the show's wide-ranging performances admirably.

As with any storied production, however, there are a few notable issues that keep the The Cherry Orchard as envisioned by UM College of Visual and Performing Arts students from becoming a complete success. Some of the choices behind the music that was utilized both during scene transitions and select moments of the play were jarring and inconsistent, effectively pulling audience members out of the normally well-established world of the narrative. While some scene transitions featured ambient, folk-inspired numbers consistent with the time period of the play, others made bewildering use of contemporary indie rock in the vein of Coldplay and Oasis. The worst offender in this regard is the use of DeVotchKa's "The Winner Is" during Ranevyska's party at the beginning of the second act. Another nitpick is that many of the Russian names were mispronounced, something that could have been remedied with the use of a diction coach. Surely the university has access to students that could offer this service cheaply or for free. Nevertheless, this lively rendition excels despite these problems.

During the first half of the production, Beckmann's charismatic Lyubov glibly states to merchant-turned-landowner Lopakhin that "people shouldn't waste time going to plays." The ironic, fourth-wall shattering implication of that statement is given even greater significance by the fact that UM's production is exceptional. In other words, Madame Lyubov, it's safe to say that going to this particular play is far from a waste of time.

The Cherry Orchard continues at UM's Masquer Theatre in the PARTV Center Thu., March 8, through Sat., March 10, at 7:30 PM nightly. $16 general/$14 seniors and students/$10 children 12 and under.

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