Progress and MelancholyI have to say I had my doubts about The Cherry Orchard as part improv, part physical theatre and dance show, but all doubts were cast aside early on in the evening. (I’d like to say they had me when they handed out homemade cake for the audience to eat, but that wouldn’t be at all fair – they had me long before that). It’s just that it sounded like a piece that would be largely inaccessible, especially to anyone unfamiliar with Chekhov’s 1904 play The Cherry Orchard on which this piece is based. It isn’t though; it’s highly accessible. It’s also beautiful, engaging and innovative. It’s a deeply textured and visually satisfying experience.

The physicality of the play, while not engaging you on a deeply empathetic level, does achieve what all great dance and physical theatre does: it takes you somewhere unexpected and then encourages you to create narrative and meaning for yourself. Director Bagryana Popov describes the play as “our conversation with the themes and the play”. Text from The Cherry Orchard is used loosely in combination with modern reflections on freedom, materialism, love, and faith, and for the most part it works very well.

Herein lies the brilliance of this play: there is an almost seamless interplay between classical theatre, physical theatre, dance and farce, with a fun breakdown of the fourth wall thrown in. There are some slightly jarring sections, however, where modern global and economic issues are touched on in a manner that borders on the didactic. Although they serve to contemporize the play, they do little in the name of integration for the piece as a whole. Still, many of the play’s humorous moments come from these modern references. At one point, Lopahin (Todd Macdonald), a former serf who has become an entrepreneur, looks at the audience and says “can you imagine owning the land the Botanical Gardens are on? It’d be worth a fortune.” A further disconnect arises partly from the transitions between improvisation and learned text, and partly from some sections, clearly based on the original text, feeling a bit tacked on. Unfortunately all of the actors (with the exception of Macdonald) seem to forget to project their voices when improvising and some of the dialogue is lost in the big space.

Macdonald is a powerhouse in this play. The energy he throws into the role is captivating, and he holds his own with the cast of talented dancers. Natasha Herbert, playing Ranyevskaya, delivers an impressive performance, especially when you realise she was called upon to replace an ill actor only four days before opening night. The entire cast is strong and dancers Christopher Le Tellier and Paea Leach are particularly enjoyable to watch.

Adrienne Chisholm (whose recent design for Café Rebetica was stunning) has designed a simple set that makes great use of the entire space, with a wonderful, innovative use of the laneway outside to suggest a cherry orchard. The demise of the orchard at the play’s end was slightly disappointing and I think more could’ve been done with the lighting here.

Progress and Melancholy is a stimulating and highly energetic play. It’s a credit to Bagryana Popov and the very talented cast.

Progress and Melancholy

Director Bagryana Popov

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: Thu 19 Nov 09 to Sun 29 Nov 09
Times: Tuesday – Saturday 8.00pm, Sunday 7.00pm
Tickets: $30 Full, $22 Concession
Bookings: (03) 9662 9966

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