The Cherry Orchard

Delta Boys at Burning Coal Theatre
Through March 29

It might be a kindness for any artist proposing to bring a “new vision” of Chekhov to the area to be advised on the amount of coal already in Newcastleand the number of speculative productions in recent years that have successfully challenged our perspectives on the Russian playwright.

Since 2000, the nuanced, imaginative and outré interpretations of Derek Goldman at Streetsigns Center, Laszlo Marton at Playmakers Rep and Jay O’Berski for Shakespeare and Originals and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern have raised audience standards and expectations to a degree that most theater artists should find quite daunting.

After her studies in New York, director Kathryn Milliken, who fearlessly navigated the labyrinth of Dublin street argot in last season’s gripping production of Howie the Rookie, came to this region just over a year and a half ago. That would be just over a year after O’Berski’s brilliant production of The Cherry Orchard with an all-black cast, the latest of the experiments mentioned above, pointedly spoke to traditionally limited casting opportunities for minority actors in this region, and the limited imaginations of those doing the casting.

If her current interpretation of The Cherry Orchard advanced anything less than a theatrical unified field theory, Milliken’s agenda for that text would have to be more modest than her predecessor’s. Still, her line of inquiry remains admittedly intriguing in this Delta Boys production at Raleigh’s Burning Coal Theatre. The director enlists costume designer Johannah Maynard and scenic designer Joshua Benjamin to ask how the conventions of Kabuki theater might illuminate Chekhov’s world of Russian aristocracy in decline.

To the shrill sound of recorded Chinese percussion, Milliken’s actors briskly set the stage and change scenes with highly stylized movements and what appear to be Kabuki mie, or ritualized poses that suggest the characters’ personalities. This economy of movement, however, is abruptly abandoned once the scenes beginsave for occasional echoes in moments where, for example, Allan Maule’s Yasha briefly stalks Amanda Watson’s servant girl, Dunyasha.

It’s curious that Maynard’s costumes provide more consistent reminders of the motifsubtly in places, overtly in others. Stephen LeTrent’s three-piece suit in the role of Lopakhin is discreetly punctuated by what appears to be a red silk Chinese vest. The servants, including Fred Corlett’s memorable Yasha, are garbed in yellow robes with at least plausibly Occidental patterns.

Meanwhile, Benjamin’s sets are minimal, perhaps to a fault. Paper and wooden screens at the perimeter are on the right track, even if these ones unfortunately suggest Pier 1 Imports more than an upperclass Japanese household, and a low white table surrounded by red silk cushions replaces the venerable samovar. These are set on a stage backed by four thin tapestries, each illustrating the branches of a cherry tree.

No doubt Milliken’s stylized transitional movements are meant to symbolize just how stratified and stiff pre-revolutionary Russian culture was. But the abrupt, repeated abandonment of those moves results in a series of theatrical slam segues, ones suggesting a staging idea only partially thought through before being jettisoned when no longer expedient.

Even with this distraction, the director has achieved exceptional character studies with the actors in this production. An initial scene between Tamara Farias Kraus as Lyuba and Stephen LeTrent as Lopakhin telegraphed the subtle joys to come. Lopakhin is the now-rich descendant of peasants who worked on Lyuba’s family’s estate. Lyuba, once married but now alone, clings to her family’s former glories while refusing to acknowledge that they have come to an end.

Chekhov fans will recall that Lopakhin presents Lyuba with the way to save the estate within the first five minutes of their first conversation in the play. But to do that, Lyuba has to acknowledge that their social status has changed. Karus gives Lyuba’s graciousness as woman of the house a telling veneer of ice as she demurely ignores Lopakhin’s repeated offers of assistance, smiling charmingly at everything and everyone in the drawing roomexcept, that is, her social inferior, the only one who can actually help her. It’s a lovely, tortuous and socially explicit moment, and it’s played here to perfection. Paul Palieyenko captures a similar chill as Lyuba’s brother Leonid, and Jeff Dillard winningly animates Yephikhodov as a hapless clerk who will only take so much abuse.

In short, even if the transitions remain questionable, the rest of this production is rock solid.

Correction (March 25, 2009): Tamara Farias Kraus’ name was misspelled.