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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Frozen in Time

Theater Review

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"It's all the same. Nothing has changed," says Madame Ranyevskaya, lost in the past as she gazes upon her beloved cherry orchard in the Russian countryside. But to the contrary,everything has changed. She and the other characters that populate Anton's Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard refuse to accept the changing world around them as class structures redefine themselves amid growing political and financial instability. Sound familiar?

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater has constructed a beautifully wrought adaptation under the thoughtful direction of Ben Barnes with a new version by playwright Tom Murphy that opened last weekend. This Cherry Orchard condenses the four acts into two and a half hours (including intermission) while attempting something Chekhov himself always intended with his final play: comedy.

Set in 1904 as the Russian Revolution looms, Ranyevskaya reunites with family members and friends at her family's estate, which will be auctioned off to pay her growing debts. Former servant and now successful businessman Lopakhin proposes that the only way to save the estate and the family's future is to subdivide the land for summer cottage rentals-and chop down the cherry orchard. But the faded aristocrat and her brother will have-and hear-none of it. They are caught in the illusions of memories. These are people clearly out of place in their time and lives, even resorting to sitting on the childhood nursery furniture in the room they grew up in.

In this solid ensemble cast, a number of actors making their Rep debuts stand out, including Erin Neal as the stern adopted daughter Varya, Jurgen Hooper as the "perpetual student" Trofimov and Kathleen Romond in a delightful turn as Dunyasha, a servant with higher class aspirations. Lee Stark brings a multidimensional quality to her role as the daughter Anya, lighting up the stage (as she did in the Rep's recent production of Pride and Prejudice).

Rep veteran Mark Corkins' depiction of Lopakhin sustains the humor-and the intruding reality-of the family's dire situation in this production. And Laura Gordon adds to the comedic efforts, expanding the role of the governess Charlotta by playing upon the humor of her magic tricks, German accent and nonverbal stage "business."

Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal's vast, empty set of worn walls and silent spaces punctuated by children's toys deftly captures the frozen-in-time emptiness of these people's lives. Charlotta literally echoes this as she wanders off from a group, muttering, "It is a mystery. I am alone everywhere." In The Cherry Orchard, everyone is alone.

The play runs through May 10 in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater located in the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex.

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