Karla Boos plunges into the changing world of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ 

By Sharon Eberson

Quantum Theatre’s Karla Boos is adept at finding Pittsburgh places that not only realize her vision for a production, but also transport you to wherever the play of the moment is set.

The play that opens Friday at OneValley Roundhouse in Hazelwood, Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, just happens to be having a moment of its own.

From left, Julia de Avilez Rocha, Karla Boos and Moira Quigley in Quantum Theatre’s “The Cherry Orchard” at OneValley in Hazelwood. (Jason Snyder).

Apart from Quantum’s production, another has been in the news, boasting Mikhail Baryshnikov among the cast and recalling the dance superstar’s defection from Russia. The director Igor Golyak has adapted The Cherry Orchard to include a high-tech robotic arm that among other things, serves tea, and the production was available on-demand for a period as well.

That play, much ballyhooed during its run at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, is titled The Orchard.

Quantum was already planning its production when the New York version was announced. If nothing else, the coincidental timing draws attention to the lasting legacy of the last play by the Russian master, who helped usher in theater’s age of modernism.

For her company, Boos has chosen a natural setting, more akin to a play about grief and loss, with the fate of a cherry orchard central to the plot. The play also boasts the first gathering onstage of a prominent Pittsburgh theatrical family – Laurie Klatscher and Greg Lehane, with their son, Nick Lehane.

Boos, an actress who has rarely been on stage in recent years, plays Lyubov Ranevskaya, who is kind-hearted and uppercrust, but seems unable to comprehend the crumbling of Russia’s aristocratic class. She is the head of her family’s estate, including her beloved orchard, but she also has led them into financial ruin.

It’s a juicy role, to be sure, although outwardly, Boos and her character would seem to have little in common.

The unlucky-in-love Ranevskaya has been MIA from her estate and has dwindled away the family fortune. We meet her as she arrives home, just before their estate is to be auctioned. Given options that might save the home, at least, Ranevskaya would seem to be incapable of making a decision.

It’s hard to imagine Boos, the leader of the company she founded more than 30 years ago, ever being so … impractical.

“That’s a funny way to look at it,” says Boos. “I mean, in some ways, it’s a pleasure to play an extravagant character who’s got some narcissism going on, or some tunnel vision, or whatever. Those things are fun. But I do relate to her, in that she’s on a different wavelength, where certain things make sense that come from her heart.”

Hazelwood Green and OneValley Roundhouse offer dramatic scenery for QuantumTheatre’s “The Cherry Orchard.” (Jason Snyder)

A former serf, now moneyed and an admirer of Ranevskaya, explains that clearing the orchard and parceling the land for sale is her family’s best hope for keeping the estate. 

But letting go of cherished possessions, as well as long-held beliefs, is easier said than done. Chekhov’s rich, often humorous characters are at the intersection of a new world order, and it would appear that resistance to change is futile.

“The character is grappling with the past, and she believes she is doing the best she can do,” Boos says. “There’s the uncertain knowledge of how the world will move on and how one’s life moves on. I think that’s the power of the play.”

The character of Trofimov (Joseph McGranaghan), an “eternal student,” has a speech in which he declares “All Russia is our orchard,” or for him, a symbol of Russia’s oppressive past. He sums up by saying, “It’s so clear that in order to begin to live in the present, we must first redeem the past, and that can only be done by suffering, by strenuous, uninterrupted labor.” 

Something aristocrats such as the Ranevskaya family know very little about.

For her Chekhovian journey, Boos has chosen an adaptation by Libby Appel, her mentor from her days at California Institute of the Arts.

The Cherry Orchard was described by Chekhov as a comedy, and the playwright famously was furious when original director Konstantin Stanislovski produced the play as a tragedy. Appel’s version, originally for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was reviewed by the North Coast Journal as “striking a lovely balance” between the two. 

“It’s very rare that when I’m thinking about a play that I feel like, ‘Oh my God, I want to play a role,’ you know?. So when that happened, [Appel] was the first person I called, and she was so beautiful. She said, ‘You must do it.’”

However, at age 85, Appel does not travel anymore. Boos instead recruited director Katie Brook, who earned her MFA at Carnegie Mellon and is based in New York as director of production at StoryCorps, an oral history project that broadcasts stories on NPR. 

This is the first time working together for Brook and Boos, with a play that has seen more than a dozen Broadway productions, most recently in 2016, and countless versions worldwide. 

“I connected with Katie in the way that I do, when somebody wants to have a coffee with me,” says Boos, who early in her career asked the same of August Wilson, and they had that coffee while he offered words of encouragement. 

“It was a kind of impulsive move for me to say to Katie, ‘Direct The Cherry Orchard. I’m playing this role, and I know that’s a lot to ask you to do, we don’t know each other that well.’”

As they headed toward opening night, Boos says, “I think it was remarkably right. She’s a young director who has done a lot of experimental work, but she has a real love of classic plays and wants those two things to come together. That’s what made me sit up and take notice. I don’t usually get to talk with a young person who wants to direct Tennessee Williams, and that’s what she mentioned.”

Brook also first mentioned actor Nick Lehane, a New York-based Pittsburgher, to play the character of Lopakhin. Lehane, a Pittsburgher, has studied at the Moscow Art Theatre School and graduated from the CMU School of Drama. 

When Nick’s name came up, his father, Greg, was “already a contender” for the part of the doddering, loyal butler Firs, Boos says. 

“How many gents do we have that can pull that off?,” she adds. “And he is beautifully pulling it off, too, even though he’s too vigorous for it. And Charlotta can go many ways, age wise, but we have Laurie Klatscher! Come on!”

The play also offers a reunion for Boos and Canadian theater artist Peter Duschenes (Gayev, Ranevskaya’s brother), who met as grad students at CalArts. The pair adapted The Howling Miller together for a 2010 production, and he has previously acted in Quantum shows such as The Merchant of Venice and Richard II.

The cast also includes Moira Quigley, Julia de Avilez Rocha, Benjamin Viertel, Zanny Laird, John Shepard and Jake Emmerling.

“I love all the young people in the show. They’re so vibrant. And I really, really love our design,” Boos says.

Weather permitting, they have an idyllic spot on which to romp, where once there was a crane system for the transfer of steel. The setup by scenic designer Bryce Cutler is an alley configuration.

“This set is so beautiful,” says Boos, describing the former industrial site, now the OneValley Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green. “It’s all outside on this patio, where there’s this I-beam structure jutting out, creating a slant roof.”

The site underwent a $13.7 million renovation to become an innovation hub of OneValley, a Silicon Valley-based platform that fosters innovation communities nationwide. 

Helping to adapt the space – always a challenge outdoors – are designers C. Todd Brown (lighting) and Peter Brucker (sound and tech specialist), with period costumes by Damian E. Dominguez.

Karla Boos as Madame Ranevskaya in “The Cherry Orchard.” (Jason Snyder)

One production image shows Boos as Ranevskaya, in a vulnerable, dramatic pose, swathed in scarlet. Asked if this demanding role might be her last as an actress, the Quantum founder and artistic director was inclined to never say never.

“I don’t want to be like Cher,” Boos says, referring to the singer’s The Farewell Tour – it was extended so often, it became known as The Never Can Say Goodbye Tour.

“I’m a person of impulse, so I don’t know what the future will hold,” she says. “But I do feel very much in a transition in my life as an artist. It’s partly the world changing, and it’s changing a lot.”

She does have that in common with Chekhov’s Ranevskaya – facing a world undergoing dramatic changes. But that may be where the similarities end, because you know whatever the world throws at her, Karla Boos will face it with the sensibility of a fierce and fearless artist. 

Quantum Theatre’s The Cherry Orchard is at OneValley Roundhouse, Hazelwood Green, 4165 Blair St., July 8-31. For directions, click here. Details and tickets: quantumtheatre.com.

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