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Cherry Packing

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The tyranny of rent and mortgages over dreams and fond memories is at the heart of Anton Chekhov's final masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard. Sadly, it is also at the heart of a real-life drama playing out behind the scenes at L.A.'s most innovative small theater, the Evidence Room. The company is being forced to leave its space on Beverly Boulevard--and like the Russian nobles at the end of The Cherry Orchard, it's unclear where they are going.

Los Angeles theatergoers should know Chekhov's tale quite well, as earlier this season, the Mark Taper Forum staged the same play with Frances Fisher, Sarah Paulson, Alfred Molina and Annette Benning. A first-rate cast that was wasted by a third-rate director.

When the Evidence Room announced their rival Cherry Orchard, it seemed like a perfect Russian tale: the proud, well-funded Taper upstaged by a scrappy troupe with a budget next to bupkes. But as Chekhov's work tends to reveal, life is not that simple. This Evidence Room staging is not revelatory. The backstage similarities to the events on stage do not create instant theatrical magic and this production invariably suffers from the hardships of putting on theater without sufficient resources.

That said, Bart DeLorenzo's staging is much more entertaining then the leaden Taper production--and it's far more coherent too. Some of this is due to the translation. Paul Schmidt's version is perhaps not as poetic as others; but it's swift and clear, sacrificing none of the play's emotional impact.

Mostly though, it's because DeLorenzo understands the work and lets his diverse cast find the play's themes in their own way. Lee Kissman and Tom Fitzpatrick connect with the characters in a traditional fashion: mixing comedy and pathos in a way Chekhov wished for the first production, but did not get, as the premiere--directed by Stanislavski in 1904--was played as solemn tragedy. Leo Marks plays Petya, the student as a budding Bolshevik, Lauren Campedelli makes Carlotta a sultry, gypsy sorceress and Michael Cassady's awkward Semyon seems like the lost, sixth member of the Breakfast Club.

These variations are each interesting, but the boldest departures are in the two leads. Don Oscar Smith has the unenviable task of playing Yermolai Lopakhin with Alfred Molina's incredible performance (the one highlight of the Taper version) still lingering in the memory. Molina played the serf-turned-self-made-millionaire as a sort of accidental gentleman, a noble soul for whom money is easy to make, but difficult to wield. Smith's Lopakhin could not be more different. His Yermolai has all the charm and nobility of a Rotary Club Treasurer. This interpretation is less bravura, but it works just the same. If anything, making Lopakhin a provincial pedant allows us to sympathize more with the play's grande dame: Liubov Ranyevskaya. Maria O'Brien plays Liubov as if she were a faded TV star. O'Brien speaks her lines as if they were written yesterday on the CBS lot, but she still conveys the character's timeless innocence and folly.

This eclectic mix of acting styles is messy and often jarring. A thoroughly rehearsed performance, by actors who have performed the play many times before, would no doubt provide a more nuanced, more complete Cherry Orchard. But such performances are rare in this day and age (even at the best theaters) and ultimately, the freedom that DeLorenzo gives his well-cast performers (many of them Evidence Room veterans) pays off. The effect of Chekhov's words is felt by the audience--and this, more than celebrity casting or cerebral concepts, is what makes a production worth our time.

Adding to the experience is Ken Roht's vaudeville choreography between acts, which could not be more true to the spirit of Chekhov, and the Evidence Room's typically un-specific decor and costumes. As the Russian aristocracy packs their belongings in cardboard cartons, the cherry blossoms that have cluttered the stage throughout the play begin to look like styrofoam packing popcorn. Like the performances, the minimal stagecraft queerly and quietly make plain the play's simplest theme: Nothing lasts forever.

Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard plays at the Evidence Room Thursdays through Sundays. The show, and the theater, close July 2.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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