Intellectually, I've known that Anton Chekhov intended this, his last play, to be a comedy ever since I first read the translator's notes in high school. But I always assumed the descriptor was some sort of bleak Russian joke that I couldn't get—every production of The Cherry Orchard I've seen has lacked any sense of humor or fun. I'm hardly the only one; Constantin Stanislavski insisted on directing the play's premiere as a tragedy, despite the playwright's protestations, and most directors have followed suit ever since.
Unfortunately for audiences of the past hundred years, The Cherry Orchard is a lousy tragedy. Its purported protagonists are a family of buffoonish, penniless aristocrats who, having squandered their family fortune, refuse to face the fact that their lovely estate must be sold to cover their debts. They and their entourage vary in eccentricity from mere incompetence to complete lunacy, and their interactions are the stuff of farce—there's Yepikhodov, the pratfall-prone clerk; Charlotta, the cucumber-chomping amateur magician; Trofimov, the fatheaded student; and Gaev, the babbling head of the estate whose nonsensical rants even his own nieces refuse to humor, and who inserts into every awkward moment a billiard-related catchphrase. Watching these clowns lose their home provokes not a hint of pity, so why do directors keep mounting the show? Is this another dry joke?
Thank goodness for Tom Stoppard. The British playwright's new adaptation, which premiered in New York in 2009, updates the language a bit and underlines the laughs. There are a lot of laughs. The Portland production, the inaugural effort by a new company helmed by veteran directors, is uneven but still quite funny. While a few of the actors seem to lose focus, allowing their attention to drift from the scene when they aren't speaking, Butch Flowers as Trofimov and Christy Drogosch as Charlotta are hilariously present. Given the size of the cast, the mostly strong performances, abetted by Russell Terwelp's authentically strange costumes and Daniel Shaw's sure-handed direction, bode well for Compass Rep's future.
The Church, 602 NE Prescott St., compassrep.org. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes June 13 at 7:30 pm. $15-$20, Thursdays are pay what you will.