the-orchard-ssu-sonoma-state-2015THE ORCHARD DEVELOPMENT
Directed by Paul Draper
Choreography by Kristen Daley

Sonoma State University Department of Theatre Arts & Dance
Evert. B Person Theatre

RUN: April 16-25, 2015
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

April 17, 2015

The scale of The Orchard Development is stunning, from lyrical dancers to live selfie style cameras moving about the stage capturing intimate moments with the characters. The staging creates depth that grows with each scene, spinning a whirlwind of emotion in ways that more simple staging could not. To balance the projection elements, sets and props are minimalist outlines. Instead of showing the scene, SSU has created a set that is psychological in nature, rather than actualized. The opening felt disjointed, but quickly pulled together in a moving way, mingling dark comedy with melancholic contemplation.

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Based on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1905), this production has updated the setting for a modern audience, choosing to portray Russian immigrants to America, rather than the situation in Russia at the turn of the century. The mix of costumes and personalities spans eras in an ambiguous setting, making the play relevant to all of us, not just specific issues of Russian peasants leading up to the revolutions of 1917. This version uses the translation of Allison Horsley as a base, who wrote a word-for-word rendition of the original Russian, and gave permission for alterations for the purposes of Sonoma State’s staging.

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Dance infuses the play with energy, serving as a Greek Chorus to the emotions each character is feeling, in carefully shaped movements reminiscent of Martha Graham. The opening to Act III gave life to jazzy Russian music thanks to brilliant choreography by Kristen Daley. Most poignant was the symbol one dancer gave at the opening of the play silently holding a candelabra, standing in the same position with her hands empty as the play ended, symbolizing the desolate orchard as it was abandoned.

Lyubov (Lyla Elmassian), owner of the orchard, is so caught up in her own losses, that she cannot bring herself to face the pain of reality. She is anchored to her past, allowing it to drag her down, even to the end. The multimedia shone in her soliloquy with pre-shot footage of her character wandering lost through the orchard in bloom. Her sister, Leona (Alexandra Jiongo) is invisible to her family, constantly shut down when she tries to open her heart to them. Her opinions and dreams are not valued, and she resorts to eccentricity to gain attention. Equally torn up inside is adopted daughter Vivian (Ashlyn Kelley) who is in love but not courageous enough to speak first. Her doomed affections are realistic to those who love, but somehow never manage to form the words. Portraying characters with multiple facets can be difficult, and while the acting was not consistent, there were flashes of profound meaning that came through this production.

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SSU’s The Orchard Development is a fascinating study into the nature of humanity’s relationship with past experiences. The Director’s Notes suggest it is about “memory, separation, and missed connection.” While I believe the production would benefit from another pass of tightening up, especially the opening of Act I, the detail and thoughtfulness put into it is to be commended. This is a fresh take on the play, bringing it into the 21st century with its technology, social media, and texting while keeping the integrity of the message alive. As Professor Dumbledore could summarize, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”