North Coast Rep’s Ellenstein, Baird team up again for Chekhov classic ‘The Cherry Orchard’
Closing in his 30th production at Solana Beach theater, Baird said he like the complexity of his Russian character
The question has hung in the air as long as Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” has been around, which is 120 years: Is the last play he ever wrote a drama or a comedy?
“It’s quite complicated,” says Richard Baird, who’s cast as the middle-class merchant Lopakhin in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Cherry Orchard.” “Infamously, he (Chekhov) and (Konstantin) Stanislavski, who directed the very first production, had a real argument as to whether the play was a tragedy or, as Chekhov saw it, a comedy. But that question becomes irrelevant because a great play contains aspects of both.”
Baird says he and Ellenstein — who is now in his 20th year as artistic director of North Coast Rep — had talked for a long time about them doing “The Cherry Orchard” together. They reached an accord of their own about the nature and tone of Chekhov’s play, which is set on an ancestral estate in Russia.
“David and I have a great shorthand together and similar to me, he’s more interested in finding the comic aspects of this play while not eschewing the serious issues and some of the tragic elements,” Baird said. Chekhov gets a bad rap for his productions being accused of having a false ennui. That’s something we’re definitely trying to avoid, but you also have to be careful about going to the other extreme, which is making a knockabout farce.”
Within Chekhov’s story about the fate of a land-owner’s estate (site of the eponymous cherry orchard) is a meditation on the social changes happening in the early 20th century in pre-Revolution Russia. The influence of the aristocracy was waning and a newly empowered and monied bourgeoisie was emerging.
In “The Cherry Orchard,” Yermolay Lopakhin, the son of a former serf on the estate, has gone from peasant to successful businessman.
“Lopakhin is a harbinger of things to come, is the way I think of him,” said Baird. “He’s the wealthiest character in the play. There’s a quality to that which makes me think the road to hell is paved with good intentions. He really thinks he’s going to save this family but he bears the scars of being a serf growing up in that house.”
When it comes down to it, Lopakhin is complex, which appeals to Baird and which he says is a trademark of Chekhov’s characterizations.
“The great thing about Chekhov,” he said, “is that his characters are wonderfully drawn out. He said that none of his characters are heroes or villains. He’s one of the most unjudgmental playwrights I’ve experienced.”
Among those joining Baird in the cast at North Coast Rep are Katie MacNichol (last seen at NCR in the comedy “Into the Breeches!”) as the estate owner Lyubov Ranevskaya; James Sutorius; Ted Barton; Michael Louis Cusimano; Sofia Jean Gomez and Amanda Evans.
This version of “The Cherry Orchard” was written by the late Jean-Claude van Itallie, who was known for his translations of Chekhov’s plays.
‘The Cherry Orchard’
When: Previews begin Wednesday. Opens March 11 and runs through April 2. Showtimes: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. (plus 2 p.m. on March 10 and 22)
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Phone: (858) 481-1055
Coddon is a freelance writer.
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