Chekhov, Intimately

An aging grande dame sweeps into her childhood home in Russia following a long absence, her youngest daughter and a Parisian entourage in tow, only to find a kitchen full of starving servants and her eldest daughter pressured with the estate's impending financial doom. Madame Ranevskaya, however, isn't concerned with pecuniary affairs. She's concerned with hiring an orchestra. She wants to dance!

One of Anton Chekhov's favorite delusional characters, Ranevskaya embodies both the gentility and ignorance of Russia's upper-middle class in the waning years of the 19th century. Despite the somewhat gloomy historical frame, Chekhov called The Cherry Orchard "a comedy, in places even a farce." In his production of the 1904 work, Infernal Bridegroom Productions's Greg Dean attempts to stay true to that notion, focusing on Chekhov's gentle sense of humor and less on the tragic circumstances that swirl around the play's titular orchard and Madame's stately house.

Madame Ranevskaya has returned from five years in Paris trailing debt; to meet her obligations, she's faced with the prospect of selling off her estate. The cherry orchard in particular is lusted after by a local businessman, who wants to build on the land. A story of a passing era, but more specifically the disintegration of a family trapped between their genteel history as wealthy landowners and the rise of the merchant class, The Cherry Orchard is about a tragic passing of the guard, wrapped in Chekhov's gift for the comedy of everyday life -- unexpected arrivals, awkward circumstances and the illogic of poverty descending upon those who have always been rich.

Because this production is staged in Commerce Street Art Warehouse, it has substantial hurdles to overcome. Chekhov argued for the power of objectivity on a stage that offered an audience the advantage of viewing actors from an appropriate scientific distance. But in this dilapidated warehouse, IBP's cast brushes the elbows and knees of the crowd as they enter and exit. The closeness demands a certain camaraderie between audience and actors, something that's a clear departure from Chekhov's objectively distant aim. Such proximity raises the question of whether or not we're supposed to laugh at Tamarie Cooper's occasionally melodramatic reading of Madame Ranevskaya -- a character who's petty, a bit slow, utterly self-concerned and not particularly sympathetic -- or if we're supposed to be moved. My vote is for the former, though the opening night audience didn't always agree.

As is the case with most IBP shows, once you think you've got the concept (high humor meets drama with a capital D), the tables are turned on you. Most of this Cherry Orchard is at least brushed with strokes of Chekhovian realism, especially the cold reality of finance. As Lopakhin, a peasant who grew up to be a merchant, Andy Nelson is gently perplexed by Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev's inability to make a decision regarding the sale of their orchard. In Lopakhin's ever increasing confusion in his conversations with her, we get the sense that Ranevskaya lacks any sense of just how fast her family is hurtling toward a final separation from their heritage. That Cooper has infused these scenes with an impatient disregard for any discussion of business is part of what makes Ranevskaya's plight so unsympathetic. She's just not willing to help herself.

This being Chekhov, moments of misread inference and physical comedy abound, and these are, for the most part, handled admirably by Dean's direction. Charlie Scott's Gayev is a bumbling clown, making speeches to the nursery's ancient wardrobe and becoming effeminately flighty during futile discussions about auctioning off the cherry orchard. Dunyasha, the coquette chambermaid played by Kimberly Yates, is coyly innocent and delightful in her pursuit of the dandy footman, Yasha, played by a naughty Jim Parsons. Less successful is Dean playing Firs, the doddering old servant who feebly tries to keep everyone from catching cold. It's always hard to watch a young actor play an elderly character, mostly because it's rarely believable.

The pursuit of love takes many forms in The Cherry Orchard, from the vainglorious to the innocent, a range that's capably treated in IBP's production. As surely as a biologist prods the slowest paramecium along, Chekhov pushes the character least likely to mate toward disaster. The core of tragedy in The Cherry Orchard is found in the fate of Varya, Madame Ranevskaya's eldest daughter. Left behind to take care of the estate when her mother fled for Paris, Varya, played tautly by Celia Montgomery, worries over the house and its contents and worries, silently, about whether or not Lopakhin will ever ask for her hand. Stumbling through what should be their moment of connection -- a long-expected marriage proposal -- Nelson inches away from Montgomery, talking about trains, and Varya's dull future is clearly etched.

Along with the solid ensemble work and a handful of fine single performances, there are some lovely bits of theatrical art in this Cherry Orchard. A wardrobe lit by a mysterious and unseen source, out of which Firs climbs in the first moments of the play and to which he returns at play's end, is one of them; a rear proscenium curtain that looks like the entrance to a proper ballroom, in which the audience can occasionally see couples dancing past, a nostalgic look back (literally) into the house's history, provides others.

Chekhov emphasized how quickly people's lives can come crashing down around them in as simple an act as searching for an umbrella. IBP has underlined that careful attention to detail, but paired it with the realization that intimacy with its audience in place of distance can pay off -- even if the spectators get lost for a moment while turning a conceptual corner.

The Cherry Orchard plays through February 14 at Commerce Street Art Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street, 935-2008.

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Megan Halverson