At the Edge of the Orchard, Estate’s Choked by Chekhov

the cast of estate

The newest theatrical venture from LunaSea Theatre is Estate, written by young Torontonian playwright Hannah Rittner, which plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre until January 13th, 2013. Estate is a re-imagining of Anton Chekhov’s 1904 play The Cherry Orchard, modernized and set in the Annapolis Valley. It features a powerhouse cast and an incredibly rare dynamic of having six female performers in an ensemble of seven.

One need only read Rittner’s “Message From the Playwright” in Estate’s programme to see that she weaves poetry into the most unlikely of places and longs to connect ardently to humanity and its artistic canon. There is much beautiful language in Estate, poignant imagery and interesting perceptions, but her characters and their story feel trapped by her attempt to fit them into Chekhov’s framework.

My first question is: Why do we need an updated version of The Cherry Orchard? What is the connection between Chekhov’s Russia, which had just abolished Serfdom and was seeing a massive overhaul of the fundamental fibers of its society and its economy as the Western World was being revolutionized by the Industrial Revolution, with the early percolating of Bolshevism and Marxism that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 stirring the people’s world even more vigorously, with contemporary Nova Scotia? Rittner sets her story in the immediate future (2015-16) and hints at some sort of economic crisis, but the stakes and tangible consequences of this crisis outside this one family’s need to move is not made clear.

Rittner’s greatest strength is her beautiful poetic language, which contrasts sharply with Chekhov’s use of stark, mundane, realism. In The Cherry Orchard each character represents a certain aspect of society: a political ideology or the penniless aristocracy or the absurd futility of the forgotten former serfs, for example. This grounds Chekhov’s play in the stories of the people who inhabit this land and their ancestors. In Estate all the characters speak in heightened, grandiloquent soliloquies quoting from Shakespeare and referencing Williams and Nietzsche, from Bobby, the overalls-wearing orchard employee to Georgia, the hippie Yoga-loving matriarch. Beyond a brief reference to exploiting the Mi’kmaq and the Acadians, the sense that this is a Nova Scotian story told from the perspective of the people who have farmed the orchards in the Annapolis Valley doesn’t seem at all realistic and in some cases is historically murky. A family named McInnes, for example, likely would have immigrated to Nova Scotia from Scotland a century after the Acadians were expelled by the British. Rittner’s language is made strange and alienating in this otherwise realistic play, but I think that if it were liberated from the chains of Chekhov and approached from a different artistic style the result could be quite fascinating and emotionally arresting.

Chekhov maintained that the plays he wrote were comedies and focused on his characters’ inability to express themselves or to connect with the world around them as a source to highlight humanity’s inherent absurdity. This means that most Chekhovian characters’ inner-most thoughts and emotions exist only in subtext buried under foolish chattering about the snow, the late train or delicious food. Rittner does the opposite in Estate, having her characters continually telling one another exactly what they think and how they feel at every opportunity. As the characters are continually revealing their souls without real consequences or stakes, it is difficult for the actors to create a realistic justification or motivation as through-lines to give the story immediacy and to elicit a sense of care in the audience.

Mauralea Austin plays Georgia, reminiscent of Donna from Mamma Mia trying to be Mama Rose. It is an odd and intriguing combination. There are moments where Austin is ferocious, but the writing takes her to such extreme lengths that the heart of Georgia as a mother who has lost her child, a woman who is losing her home and a person who has lost herself is too often eclipsed by manic arm flailing and tongue in cheek Yoga axioms. I would love to see her play the Chekhovian equivalent to this part someday because it is clear that she would be incredible if given the opportunity to rein all that intensity, loftiness and emotional ferocity into a more tightly wound and subtler box. Carroll Godsman has some wonderful moments as Bobby. I loved how beautifully naive her faith was in the efficacy of the apples. Her perverse crush on Georgia, someone with whom she has had a maternal role since childhood, is one that I would have loved to see explored much deeper and with higher stakes and consequences from the rest of the characters. There is a goldmine of potential between these two women and I think this could give something more tangible and distinct for Martha Irving’s character, Sylvia, who seems under-written, to respond to. Michael McPhee’s Richard is the most “realistic” character in that he seems to belong to the contemporary Haligonian world and his inability to fit in creates a nice tension, but it is difficult for this tension to evolve because Richard responds to the chaos around him as a sort of buffer, but doesn’t have a distinct depth of personality, ideology and philosophy of his own. Rittner’s strongest character is, perhaps not surprisingly, the one who is the most different from her Chekhovian sister, Serbian artist Penelope played with beautiful simplicity by Alexis Milligan. Here, Rittner captures much of Chekhov’s subtext because Penelope is trapped in her imperfect knowledge of English. She cannot connect to others, her sense of her own identity and homeland was lost during the Bosnian War, it is not entirely clear whether she loves Gita and her angst and emotions are repressed and complicated. Penelope shines as an example of what Rittner is capable of, and Milligan’s mesmerizing performance shows how actors benefit so richly from the gift of subtext and depth.

I love that Luna Sea Theatre is dedicated to giving opportunities to young, emerging female artists. I love that they are committed to telling stories about the female experience and I am intrigued that they seem so interested in doing this through the proxy of the classic canons of male playwrights. I love that Neptune Theatre is offering its “Open Spaces” initiative which gives independent theatre companies like LunaSea the opportunity to use the Studio Theatre and to be invited under the “umbrella” of the Neptune Theatre Organization that Halifax theatre audiences have come to trust and rely on for quality theatrical experiences.

The challenge for the Halifax independent theatre right now is twofold. Firstly, we still need to work harder and better at helping audiences to find their way to Neptune’s Studio Theatre and to get as excited about the new work that is created there (both those within Neptune’s Official Season and Visiting Productions) as we are. Next, if we are fostering this space as a place to showcase that local productions and independent productions are often of similar professional caliber as those audiences have come to expect from Neptune’s Fountain Hall, we must make sure that the plays we are presenting there have been workshopped and dramaturged and rehearsed and polished as much as the plays in the main space have. Estate feels like it is still midway through its process. There is much to mine and explore and so much that is exciting and well on its way. Yet, to stage the production here and now, it feels rushed and forced into making good use of an opportunity for a playing space, rather than the culmination of a theatrical process. The consequences may be that it leaves theatregoers who would rather wait and see something closer to the “finished product” a little frustrated or underwhelmed.

LunaSea Theatre’s production of Hannah Rittner’s play Estate plays January 10-12 at 8:00pm with a matinee at 4:00pm on January 12th and a matinee at 2:00pm on January 13th, 2013 at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street). Tickets are: $25 Regular / $20 Seniors & Artists / $15 Students and can be purchased in person at the Box Office (1593 Argyle Street, next door to the Argyle Bar & Grill) or by calling 902.429.7070 or online at www.neptunetheatre.com. For more information, please click this link!

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