by Carol Rocamora
Rarely does a revival come along that allows us to experience a classic as if for the first time, and see it in an entirely new light.
Such is the case with the brilliant revival of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard by the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, now playing at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre. Lev Dodin, its fearless director, has made some daring and unconventional choices with Chekhov’s beloved masterpiece that elevate this production to one of the most thrilling I’ve seen in my theatre-going life-time.
The Cherry Orchard was Chekhov’s final work. He was struggling with a terminal illness (consumption) when he wrote it, and died only six months after it premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre. He was 44. It was, essentially, Chekhov’s greatest vision – a dying culture seen through the eyes of a dying man. A year after his death, Russia felt the shock wave of the first Revolution.
The Cherry Orchard tells the story of the Ranevskaya family, members of the impoverished Russian landed gentry, who are unable to face the end of their way of life, and are overcome by the forces of socio-economic change at the turn of the 20th century. Their beloved estate – with its legendary cherry orchard – is sold to Lopakhin, an emerging capitalist who represents the new order, and the family is scattered forever. Meanwhile, no one heeds the warnings of Tromifov, the “eternal student”, who prophesizes the cosmic political upheaval to come.
A comedic spirit trapped in a sick body, Chekhov insisted that his final play be performed as a comedy. And yet, it is rarely directed as one. This is the first of director Dodin’s many gifts – a deeply funny, moving, and ultimately disturbing interpretation.
Second, there’s his unconventional staging. Dodin and his inspired designer Aleksander Borovsky claim the entire Harvey Theatre as their playing space, with actors moving up and down the aisles as they deliver their lines. There is no set – the Ranevskaya household consists only of a few chairs at the edge of the stage, with couches, tables, and other furniture placed randomly on the auditorium floor. Actors sit alongside audience members in the first row and the aisles. The effect is, as Chekhov called it, “life as it is”, unfolding randomly and unpredictably.
Third, there’s the unique depiction of the cherry orchard itself – one of the most famous symbols in all of dramatic literature. The designer has hung a white curtain across the stage upon which “home movies” are projected of the family frolicking through the orchard in happier days. It’s a vision shimmering with nostalgia– one which Lopakhin packs up in two metal reel containers, in a final matter-of-fact gesture.
Fourth, there’s the stellar ensemble, acting out the story with humor and compassion. True to Chekhov’s writing, each actor has his/her “moment” – especially Danila Kozlovsky as Lopakhin, who delivers a drunken dance of exultation when he announces that he’s bought the orchard at auction.
While American and European directors tend to be reverential with Chekhov’s text, Dodin has made bold changes, including cuts and rearrangements of scenes. Some choices border on the radical – such as Lopakhin and Varya (the housekeeper), who are doomed never to be together, having a passionate kiss. Other moments are jarring – like the warning sound of the breaking string (here, it’s a siren), or the final apocryphal film of the characters being led off to execution. Others are both wild and wonderful – like Lopakhin’s rendition of “My Way”, sung in English, as he celebrates his triumph.
And yet, these changes don’t detract from Chekhov’s original intent – a tragicomedy whose theme is a journey into the unknown, in the heartbreaking words of one of his hopeful characters: “Good bye, old life – hello, new life!” Dodin’s Cherry Orchard will be one for the ages, just as Peter Brook’s was decades ago in 1988, in the very same theatre in Brooklyn.
Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, directed by Lev Dodin, a Maly Drama Theatre production at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theatre, now through February 27, www.bam.org