In his African-American version of The Cherry Orchard, playing Sept. 27-Oct. 1 and Oct. 4-7 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC, Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern artistic director Jay O’Berski accents the play’s farcical elements—a bit heavy-handedly and sometimes to the detriment of the tragic elements in this masterpiece of Modern Theater. Although it is true that Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) intended The Cherry Orchard to be a comedy, the play’s premise is tragic. An aristocratic but impecunious Russian aristocrat named Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevsky (Jackie Marriott), her feckless brother Gaev (LaMark Wright), and her headstrong 17-year-old daughter Anya (Donnis Collins) return to Russia after an extended sojourn in Paris, only to find the family estate, and its famous cherry orchard, about to go on the auction block because they have neglected to keep the mortgage payments up-to-date.
Absent in Paris and distracted by failing romantic liaison, Madame Ranevsky has fallen hopelessly behind in paying off the mortgage; and during the course of the play, she mainly stews and frets impotently and does little to remedy the situation other than send a frantic appeal or two to other cash-strapped relatives, who can loan her small amounts but nothing like the fortune needed to pay off the arrears. Meanwhile, the hot-blooded Anya and a perennial student named Petya Trofimov (Thaddaeus Edwards) carry on a scandalous all-too-public affair; Madame Ranevsky’s adopted 27-year-old daughter Varya (Chaunesti Lyon), who stayed at home to manage the estate, waits and waits and waits for a marriage proposal from a middle-class merchant named Lopakhin (Byron Jennings II), whose father and grandfather slaved as serfs on this very estate; and the hot-to-trot maid Dunyasha (Leigh Holmes) makes whoopee with the arrogant valet and obvious cad Yasha (Geraud Staton).
Director Jay O’Berski revels in the details of these romantic assignations, makes the grappling of Anya and Petya unnecessarily graphic, and gleefully exploits the opportunities for broad comedy in the characters of Anya’s high-strung governess Charlotta (Joan J.), the family’s tottering 87-year-old butler Firs (Holmes Morrison), and especially the seemingly narcoleptic landowner Pishchik (Thomas “TeKay” King).
With the exceptionally strong cast of The Cherry Orchard, a more temperate directorial approach might have paid bigger dramatic dividends. Jay O’Berski needs to rein in Jackie Marriott, a fine actress who several times takes her character’s anguish and frustration at the eminent loss of the estate and the clear cutting of the cherry orchard over the top emotionally. Some moderation would also improve TeKay’s Pishchik shtick. Byron Jennings’ supremely smug Lopakhin needs more depth, and Chaunesti Lyon’s Varya needs to transcend her character’s smoldering indignation to achieve more than a one-note performance.
Donnis Collins makes a vivid impression as the saucy Anya; but Thaddaeus Edwards needs to put more personality into Petya, who is rather bland and never quite seems like the kind of beau who could light Anya’s fire. Joan J. and Leigh Holmes need to moderate their outbursts as Charlotta and Dunyasha, respectively; but Holmes Morrison gives poor old Firs a touching dignity, which makes the poignance of his fate is even more piercing.
David Fellerath’s simple but versatile set design, Dana Marks’ striking period costumes, Steve Tell’s artful lighting, and Elijah Vick’s sound design all enhance this Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presentation of The Cherry Orchard. The Sept. 22nd performance still had far too rough edges and over-the-top emotional outbursts desperately in need of moderation. With the directorial, design, and acting talent here assembled, there’s no reason to believe that the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s presentation of The Cherry Orchard cannot improve in performance.
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents The Cherry Orchard Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 27-30, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 1, at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 4-7, at 8:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday-Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday, except pay-what-you-can show Sept. 27th ($5 minimum). 919/682-3343 or or via tix.com at the presenter's site. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern: http://www.littlegreenpig.com/season/2006_thecherryorchard/. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/. The Cherry Orchard (text): http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/chorch.htm.