NORTH BENNINGTON -- With many of his best-loved writings, especially his plays, set on country estates and in summer houses, Anton Chekhov's masterworks feel at home in a setting like Park-McCullough House.
Since 2012, Randolyn Zinn and Allen McCullough's professional theater group, Living Room Theatre, has presented a site-specific production of a Chekhov play on the grounds of the house, starting with "The Seagull" in 2012 and then returning to perform "Uncle Vanya" last summer. This year they turn their attention to "The Cherry Orchard," Chekhov's final play and one of his best-known writings.
While accurate, "site-specific" does not wholly describe the Living Room Theatre's production of "The Cherry Orchard." Most site-specific plays adapt the show to fit the performance space, but the situation seems to be reversed here -- it's as if the Park-McCullough House was purpose-built to house this play, which follows a Russian family's struggle to retain control of their treasured estate (and cherry orchard) in the face of changing economic conditions and growing debt.
Park-McCullough, large enough to hold 35 rooms, was built on a 200-acre estate in 1864 and 1865. Businessman Trenor Park, who was born in Woodford, built the house for his family as a summer retreat from their primary residence in New York City, and the house has been renovated over the years.
"The Cherry Orchard" first opened 40 years after Park settled here, in January 1904, months before Chekhov's death from tuberculosis in July of that year.
Each of the four acts takes place either outside or within a specific room of Park McCullough's carriage barn, and its stained wood floors, ceilings and walls add a rustic, characteristically Vermont feel to the play's rural Russian setting. The appropriate (and even period-accurate) setting for the play gives it a sense of reality -- when characters gaze out the window and describe the expansive countryside, the actors playing them are illuminated with real sunlight, and their eyes drift out to see a real mid-summer afternoon.
"It's like a film set," said actor Ken Forman, describing the immersive effect of the play's surroundings. Forman has appeared in each of the Living Room Theatre's summer productions at the Park-McCullough House, and he plays Lopatkin in this production. He said having the audience physically present in the Carriage Barn or on the lawn outside helps them enter the world of Chekhov's story.
"It's like seeing the play in 3-D," he added.
The interior spaces are decorated with furniture and props from the house and from Zinn and McCullough's own home. Though the carriage barn doesn't have the layout of a theater, the cast and crew take advantage of exterior doors as stage entrances and unseen hallways as a backstage area, and they have added risers to help the audience see the action.
"This isn't a theater, but we've made it one," said Zinn, who directs the play.
The Living Room Theatre's production of "The Cherry Orchard" will also offer a new and unique experience for Chekhov fans, as the company will perform a new translation of Chekhov's original Russian script. Polina Ionina, a native Russian speaker, created this new translation specifically for these performances and also acts in the show as Arya, the central family's 17-year-old daughter. Ionina said many translations insert elements of subtext into the dialogue, but she kept hers as literal to the original Russian as possible.
"Some translators don't trust actors," Zinn said, explaining the added content in other translations. "This is just what Chekhov wrote."
With six professional actors in the production, The Living Room Theatre is partially funded by a grant from the Fund for North Bennington. While working on the show, cast members have been living together in Zinn and McCullough's home in the area.
"The company's living situation is as much an experiment as what happens onstage, which may explain the special artistry of these productions," wrote Zinn in a release. "The collaborative spirit of this enterprise, both onstage and off, changes the usual order of business for making theatre."
If you go ...
What: The Living Room Theatre's ‘The Cherry Orchard'
When: Aug. 7 to 9 -- 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Park McCullough House, 1 Park St, North Bennington
Admission: $25, reservations encouraged