MFA production succeeds despite minor drawbacks

Ever wondered what would happen if a family of wealthy Russians in the early 1900s went broke and had to sell the estate they and their servants lived on?

Well, the MFA acting production of The Cherry Orchard at the Scene Dock Theatre can help with that.

The Cherry Orchard is a play by renowned Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, here under the direction of Kate Burton. The translation, by USC’s theatre professor Sharon Carnicke, represents the original text well while updating the script with modern colloquialisms. And unlike many Shakespearean productions, this classic play’s dialogue is modern enough to follow easily, even with its historical context.

The Cherry Orchard tells the story of Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya, the formerly wealthy landowner of a cherry orchard who must put the orchard up for auction to pay off family debts. Lyubov, who previously spent time in Paris with another man, is forced to return home because of financial turmoil. The play then follows Lyubov’s return to her family and her serfs, exploring the relationships she has with these people. Romantic plotlines between the younger folks are thrown in for good measure.

The production features set design by Takeshi Kata that is simple but perfectly representative of Russia in the early 1900s. The stage is set with classic, elegant furniture that looks completely authentic. Images of blossoming cherry orchards are projected onto the walls on each side of the theater — a detail that functions beautifully to bring the audience further into the world of the play and to provide a rich backdrop.

The acting is well executed too, without a single weak performance from any members of the cast. In particular, Lisa Hori-Garcia, who has a lead role as Lyubov, gives an unforgettable performance. Hori-Garcia’s Lyubov goes from smiles to tears in an instant, and she creates such a complex, believable character that it’s hard to take your eyes off her when she’s onstage.

Likewise, Pete Ploszek matches Hori-Garcia with his charisma in his portrayal of the young cynic Peter Trofimov — the former teacher of Lyubov’s now-deceased son — who claims to be “above love.” Some of the most powerful moments happen when these two actors are together on stage, such as their confrontation about the nature of love and moving on. Ploszek’s portrayal of his character’s jaded cynicism is still sweet enough to be compelling, and it provides a great contrast to Hori-Garcia’s passionate, unshaken desire to love and to be loved.

The problem with this play is its pacing, or lack thereof, which seems to be a result of problems in the direction or the interpretation of the script. The Cherry Orchard plays slowly and drags in multiple places: The end of the first act seems to move in slow motion.

Though the second act begins with a new spurt of energy, it again falls into a slowed pace after the big reveal is made about the results of the auction of the estate. Part of the problem is that the direction does not keep the stage energized — much of the play consists of characters sitting around talking, which isn’t too visually stimulating.

The austere staging might also have to do with the original text itself. The Cherry Orchard is not exactly what you call an action-driven play, which makes dynamism on stage difficult.

With a renowned text such as this — we can’t really call out Chekhov on his writing — it is difficult to pinpoint why the play has problems with pacing. And regardless of the original text, there are moments where the direction could have helped to bring the play to life. The Cherry Orchard’s high points come down to the acting, which really revives the play in its lagging moments.

The Cherry Orchard is a worthwhile production but something does not quite come together in making the play lively and compelling to watch. Still, theater fans will want to experience this version of Chekhov’s classic work, if only for the brilliant performances.