The Orchard (After Chekhov): hobbled by imitation

Loveleen comforts Kesur in Sarena Parmar's The Orchard (After Chekhov)

The Orchard (After Chekhov) is at its best when it’s quiet—like in this exchange between actors Parm Soor and Laara Sadiq. (Photo by David Cooper)

 

There are good bits, but overall it’s a mess. And the primary faults are in the writing and direction.

In The Orchard (After Chekhov),Sarena Parmar, who grew up in Kelowna, resets Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in the Okanagan in 1974. The central characters are no longer aristocratic Russian landowners; they are South Asian-Canadian farmers, Sikhs from the Punjab.

It’s a clumsy fit.

The Cherry Orchard is about the twilight of the Russian aristocracy: we’re in the early days of the nineteenth century and the Bolshevik revolution is brewing. Ranevskaya, the mother of the family, returns from Paris to find that her estate is in financial peril. A low-born but highly successful merchant named Lopakhin offers Ranevskaya a solution: if she cuts down her cherry orchard and builds summer cottages to rent, she can save her property. But Ranevskaya won’t hear of it: she is sentimentally attached to the orchard and to other romantic indulgences, including her thieving Parisian lover, and endless mourning for her drowned son Grisha. Ranevskaya lives in the past.

Meanwhile, Grisha’s former tutor Peter talks revolution and other characters jockey for position in the suddenly flexible social order: Dunyasha, the housemaid, who aspires to be a lady, constantly calls attention to her delicate sensibilities and soft hands.

But issues arising from class are barely visible in The Orchard (After Chekhov), which renders many of the characters incomprehensible. Dunyasha becomes Donna, for instance, a Japanese-Canadian woman who’s hanging around Loveleen’s home for no apparent reason. (Loveleen is the new Ranevskaya.) Donna makes cha sometimes, but she’s never clearly identified as a servant. Donna’s social climbing is starved of context.

When Ranevskaya goes for an expensive lunch or when she presses money into a pauper’s hand, you know she’s doing it because she comes from generations of privilege and she can’t stop herself from playing the role of the gracious, munificent lady—even though her family has run out of money. But, when Loveleen does the same things, you ask, “What’s wrong with her?” Loveleen is presented as a hardworking farmwoman who has—somehow—forgotten how to be sensible. Grief, the proffered explanation, doesn’t cover it.

And, when everybody lounges around in the orchard discussing philosophy—as Russian aristocrats might do—you can’t help but ask, “Don’t they have peaches to pick?”

Jovanni Sy makes things worse with stylistically incoherent, often coarse direction.

Some actors—who cleave to subtlety and naturalism—survive. There’s Risha Nanda, who’s playing Loveleen’s daughter Annie, for instance, Munish Sharma as Loveleen’s brother Gurjit, and Parm Soor as her father, Kesur. All of these performances are consistently grounded and all of them deliver touching moments.

Individual scenes are affecting, too. I’m thinking of the exchange in which Laara Sadiq’s Loveleen explains to Gurjit her helpless need for her Bombay lover, for example, and the conversation between Nanda’s Annie and her love interest Peter, the tutor, who’s played with a pleasing combination of abandon and restraint by Nadeem Phillip.

In these moments, the Arts Club’s production of The Orchard (After Chekhov) calms down long enough to allow emotional access. Too often, though, the show hyperventilates. On opening night, there was a whole lot of hollering in Act 1.

And director Sy allows Andrew Cownden, who’s playing Michael, the wealthy merchant, to go way, way over the top. Cownden is a talented actor. You can see that here in his use of rhythm. But Cownden’s performance is so big that he’s in his own show, which might be a Cirque du Soleil production. It was Sy’s job to pull Cownden back, but he has clearly been egging him on.

Sy also lets down Kai Bradbury, the young actor who’s playing Yebi, a would-be Japanese-Canadian cowboy. Like Cownden, Bradbury has good instincts. He’s charismatic and he commits to his character’s clownishness, but Sy needed to help him find subtler expression.

I haven’t talked about Charlie, the female First Nations rodeo rider, yet—which is kind of appropriate, since the character feels tacked on. Charlie’s relationship to the family and their circumstances is never developed, so, at the end, her speech about her connection to the land isn’t building on much.

The Cherry Orchard explores feudal society and its legacy, which is a large but unified subject. Chekhov sinks into it and the experience of the play can be profound. On the other hand, The Orchard (After Chekhov) feels shallow and scattered. It’s about racism, but it’s all over the place: it mentions residential schools, Japanese internment, and Sikh assimilation—without wholly embracing any of these experiences.

As a theatregoer, I’m eager to hear from underrepresented communities such as Donna and Yebi’s, and Charlie’s. And I’m eager to hear about Sikh experiences in the Okanagan. I just wish that Parmar had told these stories on their own terms rather than trying to view them through the occluding lens of pre-revolutionary Russia. She would have found much more success, I think, if she had been freer in her response to Chekhov’s story.

THE ORCHARD (AFTER CHEKHOV) By Sarena Parmar. Directed by Jovanni Sy. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, March 27. Continues until April 21.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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