The Orchard (After Chekhov) breathes fresh cultural life into a classic

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      By Sarena Parmar. Directed by Jovanni Sy. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, March 27. Continues until April 21

      As the cherry blossoms bloom around Vancouver, The Orchard (After Chekhov) turns its eyes eastward to the Okanagan, where blossoms herald either prosperity or catastrophe for fruit farmers. An adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Sarena Parmar’s play replaces laissez-faire Russian aristocrats with South Asian farmers in that verdant valley before it became a favoured destination for wine-lovers.

      Loveleen (Laara Sadiq), the family matriarch, has just returned from six years away in Mumbai, to which she fled after the tragic death of her son. She’s been retrieved out of a depressive funk by her daughter Annie (Risha Nanda). They need all hands on deck, because the family farm is threatened with bankruptcy. With the help of her brother, father, and sundry hangers-on, Loveleen struggles to balance the demands of the farm, her family, and her own haunted head.

      Chekhov famously wrote The Cherry Orchard as a comedy with farcical elements. Yet, when legendary Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky premiered the play in 1904, he rendered it as a tragedy. Since then, directors have had to wrestle with the work’s tonal challenges.

      This tension seemed reflected in the range of performance styles on opening night. Adele Noronha stood out with her sad, small, smart rendering of Loveleen’s niece, Barminder. Meanwhile, Andrew Cownden played local tycoon Michael with a Chris Farley-esque broadness. I found this stylistic gap jarring at times.

      Instead of confronting the end of the Russian elite, Parmar’s characters wrestle with Pierre Trudeau’s vision of multiculturalism. Peter (Nadeem Phillip), a student, dreams of returning to an ascendant India. In Canada, he explains, “our stories are not in the classroom. Our medicine is not in the hospitals.”

      They face racism, both subtle—small barbs from their neighbour (Tom McBeath) and overt, as when Loveleen’s brother (Munish Sharma) gets denied a job interview because he wears a turban. And they’re negotiating how and how much to integrate. Barminder attends the local Presbyterian church, though she’s deeply conflicted about doing so.

      Despite this fresh life that Parmar has breathed into Chekhov, she sticks closely to the original script’s structure. The scenes, and dialogue within scenes, follow the play’s original form.

      As such, the plot is a little baffling from a 2019 perspective. Despite the dire threat to the family’s home, we don’t see them taking much action to save it. This makes a lot of sense for Chekhov’s hapless aristocrats, but less so for this family.

      Likewise, the production is two hours and 45 minutes, which demands endurance from the audience. A looser adaptation might have enabled director Jovanni Sy to run less traffic control over the comings and goings of the 12-person cast and to delve deeper into this adaptation’s themes.

      Still, I applaud the number of debuts among the cast and crew of The Orchard (After Chekhov). In particular, Sophie Tang’s admirable lighting design was a welcome change from the very few and familiar names I usually see in that position.

      It’s a bold undertaking to adapt The Cherry Orchard. But reconstructing a classic to make way for more voices and experiences is inspired and thoroughly modern.