'The Cherry Orchard' bears fruit in Worthington
WORTHINGTON -- It isn't the ghosts of George Draper Dayton's family you'll see next week at the Historic Dayton House, dressed in 19th century garb and strolling the front lawn or lounging languidly on the home's sweeping porches.
Instead, it's the cast of "The Cherry Orchard," a mixed troupe of local and professional Twin Cities-based actors, that will haunt the circa-1890 property as they offer several adapted performances of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's classic play there from Aug. 1-5.
"Sometimes people think of Chekhov's works as heavy, slow and fat, but this is quite the opposite," said Darcey Engen, one of the touring show's organizers and actors. "We'd love people to know this version will last only about 1½ hours and is made to be very funny.
"We push the comedy, and that is how Chekhov really intended it."
"The Cherry Orchard," which premiered in 1904, tells the tale of an aristocratic Russian family that is losing its family estate, including the titular cherry orchard.
"It was a really tender time in Russian society, when the serfs were being released and needing to find their own lives but were not sure how to do that, and every traditional socio-economic role was changing," said Engen, who chairs the theater department at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
"Really, 'The Cherry Orchard' is applicable in our society today, with so many recent home foreclosures in the United States and in light of the larger political conversations we're having in our country."
Political overtones and social underpinnings aside, what Engen and her husband, actor Luverne Seifert, really hope to accomplish with "The Cherry Orchard" project is bringing a taste of professional theater to greater Minnesota.
"Two ideas came together," Engen explained. "One, I had always wanted to do 'The Cherry Orchard' in a house, because it's about a family's loss of a house, and Luverne got excited about it, too, and had the fabulous idea of bringing it to a small town and involving community theater actors.
"We locked on to that, and it soared from there."
Indeed, Worthington is not the only outlying town benefiting from this dose of culture and entertainment, which was all made possible by the couple's successful application for a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund; the communities of Kenyon, Little Falls, Taylor Falls and Blue Earth are also on the tour.
Other historic houses in those towns become the play's set and stage, just as the Historic Dayton House will be for the seven Worthington performances, each of which will accommodate audiences of about 30 people.
"The Dayton House is just perfect," Engen said. "In fact, it may be the most appropriate of all the houses for the play."
Seifert, a native of Sleepy Eye who heads the bachelor's degree performance program at the University of Minnesota and is a veteran of Twin Cities stages including the Guthrie Theater and Theatre de la Jeune Lune, appreciates that arts enthusiasts far from the metropolitan area do not always get the chance to attend professional theater productions as frequently as they might like.
"We have family in small towns, and we know there is great art there, but we wanted to try to bring something different in the form of an innovative staging at a house," Engen said. "We see this as a way to make the arts very accessible to the broader public."
With their backgrounds not only as actors but also as educators, Engen and Seifert were delighted to conduct workshops at each of the five towns in April to identify a handful of actors in each location to round out "The Cherry Orchard" cast.
Four additional professional actors (Sarah Agnew, Stephen Cartmell, Elise Langer and Dario Tangelson) will be on site in Worthington next week, first rehearsing with the community actors for hours on Monday and Tuesday and then staging seven performances from Wednesday through Sunday.
"Working with the professional actors is what I'm most excited about," said Cindy Teerink, a Rushmore resident who began performing in area amateur theater productions at age 30 and has found acting to be a most satisfying hobby for more than a decade.
"I really want to improve and learn from them, so I'm looking forward to getting feedback from the professionals and meeting some new local actors, too," Teerink added.
"We feel very comfortable in the roles of acting coaches and mentors, and we love teaching others about the inner workings of theater," Engen said. "It gives you another level of enjoyment when you know what it takes to create a moment."
Isaac Wass, a 2011 Worthington High School graduate and current Minnesota West Community and Technical College student, is another of the area actors who has been rehearsing lines and brushing up on his Chekhov in preparation for "The Cherry Orchard" week.
"Working with professional actors will be really cool," Wass said, who acted extensively in high school and college but to date has only appeared with peers and other amateurs. "Being at the Dayton House is also great, and the play itself is quite interesting--very humorous and not stuffy and boring, like I thought it might be."
Teerink, who is taking a week's vacation from her job as an assistant manager at Worthington's Hy-Vee store to participate, said her favorite line is a single word -- "Boom!"-- and she hopes as many people as possible will see the show.
"People will have a unique experience," Teerink said. "There will be kind of an outdoor picnic atmosphere and the audience will move from the lawn into the house with the actors, so they won't just be sitting there the whole time."
Worthington musicians Maynard and Jeanene Townswick will provide accordion and keyboard music during the transitions; incorporating local musicians like the Townswicks is another special feature Engen and Seifert are employing throughout the play's tour.
"We've had accordions at each place," Engen noted. "The accordion gives the feeling of being somewhere different, and it has a country feel but also an elegance to it, plus it is very joyful and loud, so it works with the various levels of the play."
Performing partially outdoors in this summer's heat while dressed in long skirts, corsets, boots and long jackets has presented some physical challenges for the actors in "The Cherry Orchard," and Engen was glad to hear the Historic Dayton House has effective central air conditioning.
"The actors do the most suffering," she said with a laugh, "but I've tried to think we are sweating out all the toxins."
Building on local connections is another benefit of the play's tour, and Engen said that 2004 WHS alumna Tessa Flynn, daughter of Nancy and Kevin Flynn, Worthington, was a favorite theater student of hers as an Augsburg undergraduate. Flynn is now employed at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
"We want people to love and enjoy theater, whether they're doing it in their own community or seeing it elsewhere," Engen said. "With 'The Cherry Orchard,' the comedy is solid and funny, which makes the tragedy of the play resonate in a way that is even more beautiful, so people will be laughing all the way through."
The site-specific performance of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" will take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Aug. 3, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4, and 3 and 7 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Historic Dayton House. Tickets are available at the Hy-Vee customer service counter, the Nobles County Library, or at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/234942.