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Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard' Is The Perfect Play To Lead Us Out of This Crazy Year
Last Thursday, the national stage actors' union Actors' Equity emailed theater actors and producers in Los Angeles to affirm its impending enforcement of new rules that many fear will destroy the creatively thriving small theater scene that has flourished here for decades. This came despite a nearly two-thirds majority of the union's own L.A. members voting their objection. LA Stage Alliance Executive Director Steven Leigh Morris (also the dean of theater critics in this town) characterizes this vital artistic hub as an "orchard" that union "zealots" are now telling the professional actors who've cultivated it all these years to "cut down."
One day after the union sent out that message, Loft Ensemble opened a new production of The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov's 1904 classic about the passing of an era, forced by a tasteless real estate developer with a personal fortune and a strong hand (reminding us that the LA theater community aren't the only ones reeling in the wake of events these days). Jared Wilson's fun contemporary adaptation is very much a comedy, in keeping with the original directive of the playwright that the piece is "vaudeville," but Chekhov's story still comes through.
A spirited ensemble cast of 16 actors (almost as many people as were in the audience on opening night, sad to say) is appealingly led by real-life married couple Melanie and Stephen Rockwell as Renee and Greg, the engaging middle-aged brother and sister who grew up on the estate with the cherry orchard, but have accrued too much debt to keep it in the family. Lenny, played with considerable brio by Maxwell Marsh, is the now-wealthy emancipated slave who wants to turn the property into summer condos. Daniel Manning as Peter, the household's 30-year-old intellectual slacker who can't finish college, and Mitch Rosander as Firs, the beyond-ancient servant who refuses to abandon his position, are also standouts, but almost everyone makes the most of their turns in the spotlight.
Writer-director Wilson re-situates the play in a present-day American setting, and most of his updated characters seem at home there (though we weren't clear why some of them got Americanized name changes, but others retained their original Russian monikers). The production's frequent moments of broad, visual comedy—expertly highlighted by costume designer Amanda Chambers's smart and inventive wardrobe choices—are mostly enjoyable and don't obscure the central theme of irretrievable personal and social loss attending the destruction of a long-cherished environment.
With only a couple of weeks before the calendar turns, 2016 has changed our world definitively. From our global politics to our local theater scene, the rules have suddenly changed. We have lost an astonishing number of our cultural icons. As we move from one place of understanding to another, The Cherry Orchard offers us no answers about what comes next or how we should consider facing it. But Chekhov's play does offer to commiserate with us in any sense of disorientation and loss engendered by the rapidly changing times or the razing of fruitful domains.
The Cherry Orchard plays Friday and Saturday nights at 8 and Sundays at 5 this weekend and then the first two weekends in January at Loft Ensemble, 13442 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks. Full-price tickets $23 online ($20 at the door); discount tickets available for $18.