For its inaugural production, The Classics Theatre Project indeed delivers on its vow to produce 19th and 20th century plays in a way that's more accessible to modern audiences. Though this staging of The Cherry Orchard is uneven, there's no doubt that it's less opaque than traditional mountings.
Using Julius West's translation, local actor/playwright Ben Schroth has adapted Anton Chekhov's play about the social and monetary decline of a once-prominent Russian family in 1904. Set at their country estate, the fractured family has reunited to decide what to do about their massive debts.
Serf-turned-businessman Lopakin (a determined Taylor Harris) advocates for dividing the property into lots for summer cottages, though that means chopping down the famous grove of cherry trees. Matriarch Lyubov (Emily Scott Banks, luminous and regal) brushes aside his, and all other, suggestions, though Lopakin warns her repeatedly that inaction will force the estate to be sold at auction. Her stylish brother, Leon (Stan Graner), spends the majority of the play adjusting his dapper duds and longing to play billiards.
Banks turns Lyubov's financial ineptitude from funny or pitiable to relatable, as her queenly demeanor makes it clear that she has never had to worry about money before. There's also a maternal hint to her actions, as she tips servants and strangers lavishly, prompting anxious daughter Barbara (Gretchen Hahn, who revels in exasperation) to clutch the purse strings in her wake.
Schroth has renamed a few of Chekhov's characters, though the choice is one of several overall that jars instead of smooths. Why bother to change Varya to Barbara and Anya to Anna, if you leave Dunyasha, Yepikodov, and Lopakin? Likewise, intermittent colloquialisms in the adaptation jump out as clunky missteps in an otherwise jaunty verbal dance.
Director Joey Folsom fares a bit better with the costumes, which mix Old World with Converse for a look that's neither stuffy nor too hipster. The script's farce-like elements are heightened by N. Ryan McBride's set, which provides a sloping ramp and two creaky doors for the characters to scramble across and through (Rachel Reininger does most of the scuttling as maidservant Dunyasha, and her physicality is a treat to watch). A semi-transparent scrim gives a ghost-like quality to actors passing behind it, though some finesse with the lighting and shadows during the party scene could yield defined silhouettes instead of floating blobs.
In this ensemble piece, it's often the minor characters that make the biggest impact. Dean Wray conveys unearned arrogance as the servant Yasha, while Matthew Eitzen employs slapstick to demonstrate how his clerk earned the nickname "Heaps of Troubles." Frances Fuselier is heartbreaking as an aging valet, while Mary-Margaret Pyeatt gets to indulge in the weird and wacky behavior of the German governess Charlotte. And though his relationship to Lyubov is a head-scratcher at times, and completely devoid of chemistry with his supposed beloved, her teenager daughter Anna (Courtney Mentzel), Sterling Gafford completely disappears into the fiery ethos of eternal student Trofimov.
Up next for The Classics Theatre Project is Strindberg's Miss Julie, which artistic director Folsom revealed will feature him onstage. Though it may take the group a while to find their footing, this debut suggests they might be on the right track.
The Classics Theatre Project's production of The Cherry Orchard runs through July 14 at Trinity River Arts Center.