The Cherry Orchard

They do Shakespeare pretty well down at the Shakespearean Festival, but Anton Chekhov? “The Shakespeare of Russia,” as he is sometimes called, apparently has them stymied.

How else to explain the extraordinarily uneven and uncertain production of “The Cherry Orchard”? Some actors shine brilliantly, some moments are electric … and then other actors embarrass themselves and scenes drag on forever.

It’s not an easy play to pull off, granted. It’s about turn-of-the-century upper-class Russians who are too unambitious and apathetic to act for themselves, and, as is often the case in plays about inactive people, nothing really happens.

The trick, then, is to make these characters seem 1) real and 2) likable, to make their flaws endearing and relevant to the audience, rather than frustrating.

We see it in Lyuba Ranevskaya (Michele Farr), a formerly wealthy landowner whose beloved estate and cherry orchard are about to be auctioned off, due to her immature money-squandering. Her brother, Leonid Gaev (Dennis Robertson), is even more sympathetic, waxing poetic about hundred-year-old bookcases and also not wishing to see his childhood home sold.

Farr and Robertson earn respect and command the stage in their roles. Robertson, in particular, gives vigor and sad humor to his character — exactly what can make the play successful, if everyone evokes the same connection from the audience.

At the other end of the spectrum is Yermolai Lopakhin (Rick Hamilton), a family friend and peasant-turned-businessman who suggests cutting down the cherry trees and putting up summer cottages in their place. That way, Lyuba and Leonid could afford to retain their land. They’ll have none of that, though, even though it’s their only real option; instead, they do nothing, and lose everything.

Hamilton’s Lopakhin is flat and stiff — befitting a businessman, perhaps, until his triumphant moment in obtaining the cherry orchard, which he conveys by standing in one place and ranting about how excited he is. He hasn’t been acting staid to fit the character; he’s just been being flat.

The production is too dignified for its own good. It would seem that director Kathleen F. Conlin has her actors so terrified of defiling the profound and brilliant words of Mr. Chekhov that they’re afraid to do anything beneath themselves, like be funny. The result is that in the rare instances when something humorous does occur, it seems jarringly out of place in the otherwise overly dramatic production. (Kristin Bennett, as Lyuba’s daughter Varya, best represents the “overly dramatic” part, weeping and moaning every chance she gets.)

An abstract, skewed set (by George Maxwell) and a few nice moments help the show avoid disaster. Henson Keys as serving-man Firs, the Russians’ last link to the old life of serfs and masters, is both dignified AND funny, and has the play’s haunting final moments to himself. Would that the rest of the show were as adept as he.

One puzzling mistake in this show was casting the brilliant Leslie Brott -- who was the best actress in all of the previous year's festival -- in the minor role of Charlotta. She would have made an excellent Ranevskaya. What makes this waste of talent so puzzling is that Kathleen Conlin, who directed "Cherry Orchard," also directed Brott in 1999's "Lion in Winter," so she knows first-hand how wonderful she is. For that matter, Conlin is also the festival's casting director, which puts her in prime position to cast Brott wherever she wants her. And she apparently wanted her as Charlotta. Strange.

I saw this play with my friend Javen Tanner, with whom I have never once agreed in matters of theater. But I think we reached a consensus on this one, which was really quite an historic occasion. The problem with Javen is that he's twice as smart as I am, and THINKS he's FOUR times as smart, and frankly, he can talk circles around me and I don't even know if he's making stuff up or not.