Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

The Perils of Progress - Shaw's The Cherry Orchard

Gabrielle Jones
Gabrielle Jones

Appropriately, Anton Chekov's last play, The Cherry Orchard (1904), has opened and is staged at Shaw's compact, tiny Court House Theatre where the audience sits so intimately close to the action and characters that claustrophobia might easily set in with Peter Hartwell's minimalist set - dark, foreboding and littered with the human detritus left behind in time's merciless march towards the Russian take on "progress," symbolized so well by Benedict Campbell's Yermolay Lopakhin, a money-hungry former Al Kozlik serf now coarsely rich and powerful, forcing the action and also at the end by the aged and meanly bent servant, Firs, played flawlessly by Al Kozlik, who slowly, sadly flounders and sinks with the ship (the axed orchard) to the monotonous, relentless tune by sound coordinator, Fred Gabrsek, an insistent "tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock."

Campbell sparkles as a mean-spirited entrepreneur suddenly nouveau riche, able to outbid his rival, claiming the orchard at public auction and later swirling about the minute stage in a frenzied, reckless drunken victory spree while Laurie Paton watches and witnesses her loss mutely in tears and pain. He causes a soft groan from the audience, when, instead of acknowledging Varya's (Severn Thompson) long-lasting love, he offers her his hand as a token as he leaves and nothing else. Her fate like that of her family is to try to survive life on a much smaller scale.

From the beginning, Lopakhin offers Ranyevskaya (Laurie Paton) and her loquacious brother, Gaev (Jim Mezon), a way out, cutting the orchard into lots to be leased to vacationers. They ignore his financial acumen and avoid him like a bad smell, hoping he will leave. His revenge splits the family, all felled like the trees.

Orchard is the tale of aristocrats whose way of life disappears thanks in part to the mismanagement of money by matriarch, Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya, veteran Laurie Paton who unfortunately does not merit much sympathy on stage despite the traumatic drowning of a son and her ad hoc too-generous handouts to one and all including a dangerous vagrant, the vanguard of societal collapse as turn-of-the-century Russia moves irrevocably towards a revolution of staggering consequence.

Bulky Jim Mezon is impressive as Leonid Gayev, Ranyevskaya's brother who tries to fashion eloquent speeches to inanimate objects such as a hundred-year-old book case, invoking the past through rheumy, red eyes, resembling a combative soldier who has returned home suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder.

Gord Rand (Trofimov) excels as a cerebral student, given to altruistic beliefs amidst family ruin and despair, but with a sense of humour often quite sardonic. He effectively employs his hands to compulsively rub his close-shaved head and when encouraged to leave his safe mental domain by the sun-like golden locks and beaming sexual presence of Anya (Robin Evan Willis), he anxiously wipes them first on his thighs then self-consciously stuffs them into his pockets.

Jason Byrne   Jim Mezon   Julie Martell   Laurie Paton   Neil Barclay

In Orchard, there are always contrasting juxtapositions. No-nonsense Gabrielle Jones (Charlotta), a governess, sits on one side of the stage spitting and polishing a shotgun while on the other side, Craig Pike (Yepikhodov) and Mark Uhre (Yasha) sing and play music trying to woo housemaid Julie Martell (Dunyasha). Rotund Neil Barclay (Pishchick), a landowner, when not falling asleep in the middle of a verbal exchange, constantly hugs friends and insists on loans from those who cannot afford to give. Unlike Campbell's avaricious Lopakhin who treats money as his religion, with Barclay, it's "easy come; easy go" and he delights in dancing as much as in paying off his debts towards the end.

Jackie Maxwell employed Dublin director Jason Byrne to establish an Irish take on this "endlessly human play.” She says, 'I have always thought the Russian and Irish temperaments were alike." I suppose there is a kind of melancholy nature that brings them together and both have a penchant for loquaciousness and alcohol. The dialogue was studded with some stark talk, but in this play, you get the feeling that Samuel Beckett is directing. The befuddled characters all seem to stand around with furtive looks, waiting for either Godot or a disaster to arrive on the scene.

Orchard unmasks displaced people pretending that they are perfectly at ease and at home. This includes both aristocrat and the nouveau riche. Paton (Ranevskaya), her rudderless brother, Mezon (Gaev), and her daughter, Willis (Anya), but also Campbell (Lopakhin), a peasant turned into successful businessman, and a host of family retainers whose social roles are no longer neatly defined. My biggest regret was that Fred Gabrsek, who expertly directed sound from behind every wall, did not leave us with the agonizingly piercing sound of buzz-saws slashing down the orchard.

Chekhov became a doctor at age twenty-four. His dual life seemed to suit him, as evidenced by this much quoted comment: "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity."

The Cherry Orchard plays at the Court House Theatre to October 2. Phone 905-468-2172 ; web site:

Benedict Campbell
Benedict Campbell

National Theatre: The Cherry Orchard - Trailer

The Cherry Orchard - 1981 (Judi Dench)

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