Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Cherry Orchard's Llyandra Jones - The Chekhov Colective

Clayton Gray   
Llyandra is an actor, director, and theatre creator based in Toronto. She is a graduate of the University of Windsor’s BFA Acting program, and has trained with various professional theatre companies and acting programs including the SITI Company based in New York, The International Michael Chekhov Association, and the summer program at the Moscow Art Theatre School. In 2014, she played Masha in The Chekhov Collective’s production of The Seagull. Llyandra writes and performs original sketch comedy with her group LaughDance, which you can see this summer in various performances around Toronto.


Llyandra Jones and The Chekhov Collective's production of The Cherry Orchard 
Llyandra Jones, a queer identified multi-disciplinary artist, whose work embraces everything from elaborate installations in her own home to a comedy troupe (Laugh Dance) specializing in political musical sketch comedy, is currently taking on the role of Varya in The Chekhov Collective’s production of The Cherry Orchard. The hardworking, realistic, and romantically dysfunctional role of Varya may be well suited to a performer/actor who sees the complex ways in which queerness can indirectly inform any given identity during a time when queer was, decidedly, not in the forefront of the popular social imaginary. And given the current state of homophobia in Russia, and worldwide, an expansive notion of queerness is a timely and complex theatrical matter. 

But the current production, opening at the Canstage Berkeley Street Theatre on January 29th, is by no means a primarily ‘queer’ enterprise - and yet one might also suggest that, as Sondheim flirts with in A Little Night Music, “Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer?” - hinting at the universal queerness that is at times more social than sexual, more universal than specific, more madcap than magical. 

Claiming queer as an inclusive term for anyone who strays from the traditional social/sexual path can be maddening, to say the least, but it can also come in handy when frustration prevails and run on sentences refuse to quickly get to the heart of the matter.

In a nutshell, The Cherry Orchard is about real estate and rich people – rich people challenged by dwindling bank accounts and floundering in a milieu of social unrest, imminent revolution, and sublime family dysfunction. As Varya Llyandra Jones has the task of bringing the bedrock of a broken family back together long enough to pack up and send everyone off on their not so merry way into uncertain futures. 

Jones feels that her feminist leanings are as significant as her queerness as she approaches the part of a woman who may very well see a life in a convent as a dream, a fantasy, an escape, from the gross time of being trapped on a big failing, forested estate at the turn of the century (early nineteen hundreds). Women had little to no legal agency at the time, thereby rendering Varya’s fantasies, her available modes of escape, very limited. Jones sites her own desires to travel and make art as her way of realizing personal dreams and fantasies, and yet knows that she must not look at Varya’s  seemingly less liberating dreams as oppressive if she is to create a believable and refreshing take on the role. Varya had dreams too, but they - like all dreams - were framed, challenged, and restricted by the times.

Varya’s own special brand of de-historicized queerness, at a time when queerness may not have existed – certainly not in the fragmented all encompassing way that it does now, promises to infuse the upcoming production of The Cherry Orchard with new life that, as Llyandra Jones suggests, will make “connections to our lives today” and reveal the mundane, engaging, banal, entertaining, and heartbreaking qualities that this classic comedy has been foretelling for over a century. Yes, as Chekhoc himself exclaimed, The Cherry Orchard is a comedy, a very social one. Director Dimitri Zhikofsky Russian origins promise to shine through and expose the comedic at the heart of the dramati. The hilarious core of fabulous quotes from Chekhov exist on a complex plane from the ridiculous to the sublime - such as “a hard life, full of secrets, but happy” – or my all time favourite laugh line from the annals of Chekhovian quips “I am in mourning for my life.”

Although the production is period based, it plays with time and history in a way that Jones refers to as anachronism, uncertainty, illusion and theatricality – all put in place by the director in order to create a fluid historical framework that will resonate with contemporary audiences attuned to the catastrophic historicity we are currently consumed by, tra la …
The modern translation, culled from a variety of translations, has been adapyed byDimitri Zhukofsky and actor/producer Rena Polley. Working with the cast in a collective setting, the primary script creators encouraged the actors to re-phrase particular lines to suit their vision of the character. Informed by the work of actor trainer Michael Chekhov  (Anton Chekhov’s grandson) the company utilizes the idea of creating both inner and outer imaginations for their character. Through physical exercise actors are required to tap into the depth of their creative imaginations, rather than re-enacting emotion through their own memory of an actual experience they have encountered. This is confusingly contrary to Stanislavki’s notion of the ‘Method’ and its American version, whereby actors actually move into the depth of the role as though they were actually experiencing the character’s life moments. Michael Chekhov gave artist’s the option of moving away from this intense frequently unattainable objective by creating forms and exercises that liberate the imagination and move it into areas of memory and physical intensity onstage. In rehearsal these techniques can manifest themselves through exercising both the body and the imagination into expressive theatricalized forms. For example, two actors in an imaginary tug of war, where the rope may not exist, but the physical intensity is performed, thereby instilling in the individual a memory of that intensity and giving them potential bodily gesture to take onstage when they are in an emotional tug of war with another character. What a fun (aka exhausting) day at rehearsal that would be!

Don’t miss the upcoming production of The Cherry Orchard. On the heels of the Chekhov Collective’s acclaimed version of The Seagull, it is sure to be a fresh look at an old comedy about rich people becoming stale, stifled, and full of the dregs of crumbling pseudo aristocratic real estate, land development, and the beauty and disgrace of a blossoming cherry orchard where timeshare villas and middle class cabins could so comfortably reside, replenish, and reduce, tra la…

 the ensemble



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