The Big Empty: The set of the Rep's "The Cherry Orchard"

Apr. 14, 2009
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Last night I made it to a preview performance of The Rep’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It’s the classic turn of the century tale of a family estate passing out of the family’s hands. The Rep production stars a fair majority of the Rep’s Resident Acting Company. As I was seeing a preview performance, I’d decided to focus more on set, lighting and sound design in my writing than the actual performance. (A more comprehensive review will appear in the print edition next week anyway.) I was a bit concerned that set and lighting and such might not leave that much of an impression on me and I’d be hard pressed to write anything substantial here.

To my relief, the set that the Rep is performing The Cherry Orchard on is a work of art. Designed by Tony Award-winning scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, it adds immensely to the production by virtue of its own immensity. Rep patrons may remember Rosenthal’s work on this design for their production of Translations in in 2007:

Or this Magritte-esque set that he designed forth Rep’s A Month In The Country in 2006:

His design for A Month In The Country was dazzling, dynamic and interesting, but distracted a bit too much from what was going on onstage. Not so with his set for Cherry Orchard. It solidly locks one’s attention into the story with a very moody space for all of the drama to move around in. The vast plane of a wooden floor with a chipping veneer somberly rushes off to meet bare brick that’s been made to look like it’s seen centuries of wear.

Rosenthal has done a remarkable job here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a set quite this cavernous at Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. Rosenthal seems to be reveling in every last centimeter of empty space onstage. It’s vast. As Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya (Deborah Staples) has returned to her estate from Paris, she has returned to a place that seems to have been in the process of emptying out for years. The empty space on Rosenthal’s set becomes its own character.

As with Rosnethal’s set for the APT’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last summer, the acoustics of the set add considerably to the production. At the beginning of the play, there's a moment where acting, costuming, sound and set blur together into clever comedy. Gerard Neugent plays Simon—the estate’s office clerk who makes comment on his squeaky shoes. With just him and two other actors there, the squeak of Neugent’s shoes echoes through the entire theatre every single time he steps . . . it’s naturally deafening--there’s no need for amplification . . . he’s just casually walking around past the vast circle of the toy train set at center stage . . . squeaking distinctly with every step, seemingly oblivious to the full effect of the sound. He exits downstage right and you can still hear the sound of the squeaking all the way down . . . for at least a good half a dozen paces after he’s made it out of sight. The sound of every actor’s footsteps can be heard in the same fashion whenever they exit downstage. They’re out of sight, but you can still hear them. It's a wonderful feeling of immense emptiness.

The orientation of the stage is a bit odd . . . as an audience, we’re looking into the estate from oustside the house, which means that when the actors are looking out into the beloved title, they’re looking longingly at us. As the audience, we are the cherry orchard, which has kind of weird symbolic implications for the play, whether intended or not. The slow and steady sound of axes at work at the end of the play signal to the orchard that it will soon be time to go home . . . speaking of which, I really like the sound Chekov describes at the end of the script. I wonder if sound designer Barry G. Funderburg was given the option of developing it for this production. It doesn’t show-up in the Rep production quite as it is in the translation of the script I read. Here it is:



[A sound is heard that seems to come from the sky, like a breaking harp string, dying away mournfully. All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the ax far away in the orchard]



Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Cherry Orchard officially opens this Friday. It runs through May 10th. A comprehensive review runs in next week's Shepherd-Express.


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