ssu cherry

Photo by David Papas

By ROBERT DIGITALE

Sonoma State Univerity’s Theatre Arts Department this season seems bent on giving things a twist.

Last fall the department put on “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but set the action in India instead of England.

Then in February it produced “Heroines,” its own theatrical creation with songs taken from such operettas as “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Threepenny Opera.”

Now comes “Orchard Development,” an adaptation of Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” but set in the American Midwest of the early 1900s.

“The Cherry Orchard” tells of Russian aristocrats who have fallen on hard times in an era of great social upheaval. Their estate and its touchstone cherry orchard are about to be sold at what we today would call a foreclosure auction. Despite a few brief glimmers of hope, the family seems incapable of saving the land they suggest is linked to their souls.

Now comes the twist. The SSU adaptation, directed by Paul Draper with choreography by Kristen Daley, is described as “a multi-media dance/theatre mash-up.” The interplay of a dozen actors is mirrored or fancifully embellished by 13 dancers. Live TV feeds, including video selfies from what appears to be a smart phone, are projected on screens big and small to give intimate, digital close-ups of the characters.

The result does succeed in at least one area: adding a little wonder to a drama where the outcome seems progressively less in doubt as each act unfolds. If the actors seem locked into a fate, much as the butler is locked into the main house at the story’s end, at least you can say, “I wonder, what will the dancers make of this next scene?” Sometimes the dance helps better than words to evoke the story’s sense of lingering loss. For example, the “ghost” of the heroine’s child son striding above the stage atop the hands of the other dancers was particularly striking.

For their part, the actors succeed in taking us into this world, occasionally with humor or insight. Still, “The Cherry Orchard” is a puzzle. Chekov does a good job getting us to ask, “Who are these people?” and “What motivates them?” Less clear is an answer to the question: “Why should I care about them?” Some are supposed to have found great meaning here. Others won’t, but with this production, at least they can wait for the next dance number.

A tip of the hat to narrator and actors Rosemarie Kingfisher, Lyla Elmassian, JoAnn Amos, Ashlyn Kelley, Alexandra Jiongo, Connor Pratt, Matthew Lindberg, Renee Hardin, Anna Leach, Ian Webb, Cassandra Slagle, Kyle Ryan and James DeSoto.

Performances resume tonight through April 26. For tickets, click here.