A wise professor of mine once said the main action of Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” is “to buy time,” and this concept is certainly evident in the Yale Repertory Theater’s production now playing at the University Theater. I barely had a chance to sit down and peruse the program when the ominous clock that hangs eerily above the stage began to tick.
As soon as the lights go down, the ticking clock mingles with the sound of a train whistle, signaling the return of Madame Ranevskaya (Lisa Harrow) and her daughter to the home in which they both grew up. The play’s opening scene is comfortingly Chekovian, rife with the author’s signature awkward pauses that lend a sense of unrest to the situation; Charlotta (Brenda Thomas) and Lopathkin’s (Ruben Garfias) seemingly random interjections (don’t we all love the “Moooo”?); and of course, some comic relief courtesy of the persnickety house servant, Firs (Peter Van Wagner). Shigeru Yaji’s costumes evoke the turn of the century, and Christopher Acebo’s cavernous set imbues the beginning scenes with a vacant loneliness that even the nostalgic Ranevskaya and her family cannot fill. Director Bill Rauch seems to have conceived a visually stunning production, but nothing too unexpected or out of the ordinary.
I should never have assumed, however, that Bill Rauch would remain within expected boundaries. Last year, Rauch directed another play at the Rep, the world premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Clean House,” and imbued it with a mix of beauty and fantasy that created goose bump-inducing moments. Rauch brings a similar magic to “The Cherry Orchard.”
For today’s generation, it is difficult to understand the urgency and relevancy of “The Cherry Orchard”; the fate of the Ranevskaya estate is tragic, but for a play that is so much about time and the future, it is hard to forget that these events, to a modern audience, seem to be very much in the past. Rauch catapults the play into the modern era with a brilliant mix of precision and tumult, suddenly making it painfully clear that time is running out not just to the characters in Chekov’s play, but to the modern audience as well. I do not want to spoil experience of seeing this play for anyone, but I will say that I never expected to associate the Rolling Stones with Chekov.
Rauch’s direction and the actors’ performances work hand in hand to successfully move Chekov’s work through time — they have imbued the play with enough specific characterization to make it resonate, and yet keep their distance enough to disconnect themselves and adapt to a different era. Indeed, in the program the characters are not even given names, and are referred to instead as, for example, “The daughter who went up in a hot air balloon” or “The brother who loves candies and billiards.” This feeling of disconnection is enhanced by Rauch’s staging.
In the first scene, the characters perch tentatively atop furniture covered with sheets, almost as though they are floating, sitting on ghosts. The second scene, typically staged as a lively family picnic, instead takes place in a graveyard, where again the characters rest upon the headstones as though they are lawn furniture. And the second act is saturated with a swirling, hypnotic light that gives the costume party a dream-like feel.
The cast is generally solid and refreshingly diverse, each character withstanding the movement through time while still remaining believable and consistent. Lisa Harrow instills her Ranevskaya with a beautiful translucent quality that enables the audience to perfectly see her struggle with debt, love, and perhaps even mental stability, underneath her stalwart façade of lady of the estate. Laurah Odeh creates a very likable Anya who is delightfully tart instead of airy, and Sarayu Rao’s Varya provides a sharp and poignant contrast to her sister. Patrick Garner (Gayev), Ruben Garfias (Lopathkin) and Jesse J. Perez (Petya) create a triumvirate of equally strong male leads. And of course, what is a good production of “The Cherry Orchard” without a significantly crotchety-yet-lovable Firs? Peter Van Wagner, a recent addition to the Rep’s cast, does not disappoint in this respect. It is always amusing to watch Carson Elrod stumble around and knock things over, and there is plenty of that in his Yasha, and Brenda Thomas is delightful as the surprisingly gruff governess, Charlotta.
This play, though, as we are reminded from the beginning, is not about individual performances, but about time. Rauch’s time-warped adaptation succeeds in making the ticking clock the most important pulse in the play, and, perhaps most importantly of all, proves that “The Cherry Orchard” is immediate, relevant, and truly timeless.