Depth of Characters Triggers Range of Emotion in ‘Cherry Orchard’

By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau

Like many theatre directors, Claude Pensis would prefer to stage a play than attempt to dissect its history or meaning in a director’s note.

But the dean for Grand Canyon University’s College of Fine Arts and Production felt a director’s note was essential to prepare audiences for Friday’s Ethington Theatre premier of "The Cherry Orchard" — a complex, character-driven play of “seminal importance to dramatic literature and the theatre.” The play’s complicated Russian history and characters alone make it a candidate for CliffsNotes, at least for audience members seeking to understand its archetypes.

Written by legendary writer Anton Chekhov, "The Cherry Orchard" focuses on an aristocratic family that’s fallen on hard financial times amid the social turmoil of pre-revolutionary Russia. In the play, the family’s cherry orchard outside Moscow is about to be sold at auction to offset their mounting debts.

Chekhov planned the play as a farce comedy. But for its Moscow premier in 1904, director and fellow Russian theatre titan Constantin Stanislavski designed the performance as a tragedy. Interpretations on the play have varied in recent times, though many include the overlap of deep emotional suffering and dark humor.

"The Cherry Orchard" is the type of complicated script that’s so revered in theatre circles as a sacred text that it’s a play best performed with actors and actresses capable of conveying characters with the depth of “a bottomless well,” Pensis said. They are so flawed and layered, it is nearly impossible to fully explore those depths.

The Cherry Orchard  
The Chekhov classic premiers Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Ethington Theatre. Shows are also scheduled Friday, Feb. 22 and Saturdays Feb. 16 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. Matinees are scheduled at 2 p.m. Sundays Feb. 17 and 24. Ticket info is available by calling 602-639-8880 or by emailing [email protected].  

Ethington audiences have been treated primarily to Shakespeare and show-tune musicals until now. But student performers have been building toward such an important dramatic play like "The Cherry Orchard" since GCU’s theatre program returned from hiatus a couple of years ago.

“It is a very difficult play that scares a lot of people off,” said Pensis about balancing the history of the play with the need for fresh interpretation. “If you treat it like a legend, then it’s basically dead on arrival.

“It’s really going to be different for our audience because it really is a push-and-pull,” addedPensis, who directed "The Cherry Orchard" more than 20 years ago at Ethington.

Since the play is so character-driven, Pensis and COFAP assistant dean Bill Symington — who oversees Ethington main stage design — selected a minimalist, “raked” stage. Furniture and props are scarce, keeping the audience’s focus on the players. The raked stage slants downward toward the audience to emphasize a rolling hillside of sorts. Turn-of-the-20th Century costumes were designed by Nola Yergen, an Ethington veteran.

The Cherry Orchard is double-cast, meaning two actors are assigned to multiple characters. This week’s dress rehearsals marked the first time some actors rehearsed straight through the full script.

Elizabeth Pabst, a junior theatre education major with multiple Ethington credits, said sharing the key role of Liubov Andreevna Ranyevskaya with dual leading-lady Holly Nordquist worked to their mutual benefit. Like other tandems in the cast, they shared notes and provided feedback of each other’s performances, though they each developed their individual interpretation of the lost-in-love estate owner who deals with the decay of her family’s lofty social status.

Students took to the double-up dynamic as an opportunity to explore their characters in greater depth.

“You have to be constantly thinking of what your character is thinking,” said Pabst, 21. “It was nice having two people working on the same character. (Nordquist) would catch things I didn’t… but (Pensis) made it clear he wants us to have two interpretations.”

Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or [email protected].

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