"The Cherry Orchard" blooms on stage

With the current housing crisis and flailing economy, Anton Chekhov's play "The Cherry Orchard" tonight could fit right in today's headlines. The story of a family whose estate is about to be sold to pay off debt will brought to life on the Helfaer stage tonight.

Directed by Maureen Kilmurry, the play follows aristocrat Liubov Ranyevskaya, played by College of Communication senior Jennifer Shine, and her once-wealthy family as they return to their cherry orchard estate in Russia in 1903. While Ranyevskaya is well aware of the high risk of losing her beloved home, she does little about it and continues to spend money in extravagance and live in the past.

The "family" is made up of about 10 different characters, although not all relatives. Butlers, maids, neighbors and valets are all thrown into the mix, and you wouldn't notice they weren't relatives if it weren't for the playbill telling you otherwise. At times it is a bit confusing to understand the personal ties between all 15 cast members because the relationships are so intricate.

Chekhov's characters are all unique, though surprisingly understated. The qualities that seem most easy to exaggerate somehow aren't, but it's intended to be that way. Chekhov was known for creating complex characters, Kilmurry said. Don't look for a villain or a saint — you won't find either — although there are both dark and heartwarming moments.

"Chekhov sort of loves all of his characters," she said. "He shows redeeming aspects of all of them."

The reckless Ranyevskaya is still likable nonetheless, even though she is throwing her family's home away with every gold coin she spends.

"It is difficult to describe her, because she is so many things," Shine said. "She has trouble handling money, and yet is so giving and loving that all of her financial problems take a back-seat in her world where her family and friends are most important."

Governess Carlotta (Genevieve Grdina, a senior in the College of Communication), for example, is possibly the most bizarre character on stage. She dresses eccentrically, totes around an imaginary dog and drinks out of imaginary teacups. She explains she doesn't know who her parents are, where she comes from, or how old she is. In one scene, she stands upstage resting her elbow on an imaginary wall. Yet this behavior only elicits only mild reactions, if any, from other characters like an eye roll or a small laugh.

There is also the somber Varya (Gwen Zupan), who consistently wears black and white and doesn't exactly wear rose tinted glasses. However, Zupan, a junior in the College of Communication, does a great job of upholding the complexity of her character when she could easily become a caricature.

"The thing that I love about Chekhov's plays is that they are so real," Zupan said. "From an audiences view it's seeing these character as real people and is seeing a slice of their lives put on stage."

Kilmurry said it also takes more effort from actors to muster up the vulnerability to leap all over the emotional charts in Chekhov's plays. There are large shifts from emotionally charged conflict to farce. In one scene, Ranyevskaya gets into a verbal argument with graduate student Petya (Nick Inzeo, a senior in the College of Communication). Voices are raised, insults are thrown and tears swell. When Petya walks off the stage in a huff, however, he falls head first down a flight of stairs, which Ranyevskaya and others find hysterical.

"The emotions, and characters are so richly human that rehearsing them has been an incredible journey," Shine said. "What is great is that you are never done 'discovering' with Chekhov, there is always something new to explore."

Phillip J. Berns, a senior in the College of Communication, is outstanding as Firs, the elderly and decrepit butler in the house. It's easy to forget Berns is actually a college student with his consistent tremors, slurred speech and arthritic step that are well maintained and solid from the first act till curtain call.

Kilmurry, a Marquette alumna, brought her appreciation for Chekhov back to Marquette after performing in "Uncle Vanya" as a freshman. It is apparent that her enthsuasim for the playwright has caught on with the cast members.

"Working with Maureen has been incredible," Shine said. "Her passion for this play was contagious and has lent itself to a beautiful product."

Rachel Finn, a senior in the College of Communication, designed a wonderful set for this production that draws inspiration from Russian homes and modernism. This is Finn's second main stage design for a Marquette production.

Costumes, designed by Debra Krajec, are just extravagant as the characters in this play, such as velvet and silk dresses along lavish jewelry.

"The Cherry Orchard" will run until Nov. 23. The PanHellenic Association is sponsoring the play and raising funds for the Hurricane Ike Relief Fund on Nov. 21 for Philanthropy Night.