All done: With the premiere of Richard Kramer's commissioned adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov's classic about a family of penniless aristocrats who must sell their useless orchard, Artists Repertory Theatre and director Jon Kretzu have completed the project of four new Chekhov adaptations they began six years ago.
Kramer's take maintains the tug-of-war between sorrow and wit that Constantin Stanislavski began in 1904, when the director infamously turned what Chekhov meant to be farce into tragedy, but the TV writer (My So-Called Life) adds his own flair to the play's emotional dissonance with sitcom-esque humor. Uncomfortable cruelty and explorations of profound loneliness are peppered with witty banter and conspicuous laugh lines that swing between flavorful and tasteless: The affluent Yermolay (Tim Blough) is announced to have stepped in crap, Yasha (Colton Ruscheinsky) smells like a chicken in a brothel, and the rotund Pischik (Todd Van Voris) claws at the air with a long "meowww" once a purse-lipped Varya (Val Landrum) turns her back.
The talented cast is an easy highlight of the production. As Pischik, Van Voris epitomizes the play's farcical notes with impeccable comedic timing and blabbering kiss-assery. Michael Mendelson brings delectable sass to the stage as Leo Gayev, while Landrum balances her Varya's wannabe-nun severity with the occasional deadpan gibe.
Also enjoyable is the immaculate detail given to the play's set and props, down to the individually crinkled bills thrown at a blood-coughing Chekhov (Jeffrey Jason Gilpin) as he stumbles, covered in rags, through his own play. Kramer isn't the first contemporary playwright to pull the audience self-consciously into the adaptation process, but he does so without cheapening the performance. In the opening of the show and nearly two hours later as the lights fade, a coughing Chekhov calmly prompts the dying footman (Tobias Andersen), "So life has gone by and I still haven't lived...so life has gone by...and I still haven't lived." It's an oddly desolate way to begin and end such a re-farced tragedy, but like many of the liberties Kramer takes, it works.
SEE IT: Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays. Closes May 22. $20-$42.