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The Classic Theatre Puts a Contemporary Spin on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard 

click to enlarge SIGGI RAGNAR
  • Siggi Ragnar
“The world is a comedy to those that think,” quipped Horace Walpole, “a tragedy to those that feel.” A play that inspires complicated thoughts and feelings, The Cherry Orchard has been a categorical challenge since 1904. Anton Chekhov subtitled it A Comedy in Four Acts and was bitterly disappointed when, a few months before the playwright’s death, Konstantin Stanislavski staged it as a tragedy. Thousands of subsequent productions have struggled to calibrate the balance of thought and feeling, comedy and tragedy.

The default mode would seem to be tragicomedy. And, as the concluding production of Classic Theatre’s 10th season, Andy Thornton directs The Cherry Orchard as a hybrid, a theatrical ugli fruit. The inability of an effete aristocracy to adjust to social change 40 years after the emancipation of the serfs is both lugubrious and ludicrous. The plight of Madame Ranyevskaya, forced to sell her beloved ancestral estate to a developer who has no qualms about razing her lovely cherry trees and subdividing the land, is as grievous as the relatives, servants, and other human limpets who cling to her are goofy. “I’ve never met such scatter-brained people,” says one.

But the mixture of historical contexts as well as moods results less in an amalgam than a mishmash. Before a word is spoken, Sam Cooke singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” evokes the Civil Rights Movement. When a governess intones Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help But Wonder,” we are again transported from Tsarist Russia to the American 1960s. Some of the characters wear period gowns, furs and blouses, but others are costumed in leather jackets, jeans and sunglasses. One clutches a smartphone. The point might be to emphasize the contemporary relevance of a 114-year-old play, but the massacre of local groves in order to divide and subdivide tracts in Bexar County is testimony enough to the timeliness of The Cherry Orchard.

As Ranyevskaya, who returns, broke, after five years in Paris, Kathy Couser is the radiant center of the proceedings. Ecstatic to be home again, oblivious to practical concerns, and inconsolable after losing her land, Couser’s Ranyevskaya is a generous, passionate figure who loves not wisely, but too well. In contrast is Lopakhin, whose grandfather and father were serfs on an estate he is now able to purchase. Kevin Majors seems too courteous to play the rapacious, Snopesian opportunist. He is also — anachronistically — African American, and, though the script substitutes “slave” for “serf” in references to his past, the cultural transposition is a distraction. One inspired change was casting vivacious Gloria Sanchez-Molina as Pishchik, an aristocratic schnorrer who is male in Chekhov’s text.

“We’ve suddenly become unnecessary,” laments the superannuated dandy Gayev, played with dotty flair by Charles Michael Howard. The Cherry Orchard remains a necessary component of classic theater.

The Cherry Orchard
$17-$32, 8pm Fri-Sat, 3pm Sun, Through May 27, The Classic Theatre of San Antonio, 1924 Fredericksburg Road, (210) 589-8450,

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