The action begins even before guests arrive. As audience members enter the theater, Lizzie Beckham’s character Olga Knipper is already pacing the bare stage in preparation for a rehearsal of The Cherry Orchard, the final play of Anton Chekhov. The famous playwright’s widow and lead actress in many of his works had debuted the role of Madame Ranevskaya in Moscow a year earlier. She now awaits the arrival of her many castmates, all of whom are late. Only two arrive, Aleko (Kriston Woodreaux) and Masha (Lori Navarette). They bring news that Tsar Nicholas II’s Imperial Guard troops have fired upon unarmed protesters led by Father Georgy Gapon. It is Saint Petersburg on January 22, 1905, Bloody Sunday, and the first bloodshed of the Russian Revolutions. Within 12 years, the empire would fall and yield to the formation of The Soviet Union.
The trio of actors speculate over the fate of the others while improvising vignettes, many of which deal with the events of Chekhov’s life. In these plays within a play, within yet a further play, Aleko plays Chekhov, Masha plays Chekhov’s sister. and Olga plays herself. A recurring theme in these mini-plays is Chekhov’s death from tuberculosis in Olga’s arms six months earlier. Despite the macabre theme, they are played to hilarious effect with the actors frequently breaking character and offering critique of one another’s dramatic skills.
The characters are drawn from segments of the pre-revolutionary society. Olga, a proud yet insecure socialite, embodies the status quo bourgeoisie. Aleko is a fan of neither the Tsar nor the Bolsheviks, preferring a return to more agrarian life. Masha despises the rich oligarch and delivers a stirring monologue in support of a people’s revolution. Through this triangle of sentiments, the play explores the Russian politics of the day.
Director Jenny Lavery’s use of the space expands the stage beyond the building itself. Austin’s Santa Cruz Theatre is itself transformed into the S. V. Panin's People's House theatre in St. Petersburg. One can easily imagine the terrifying events going on outside along the bank of the Neva River.
The overall experience is highly entertaining. The cast brings personal appeal into each of their roles and the interactions among them.