From Russia, With Love: The Cherry Orchard

Photo Credit: ©Stephanie Berger

Photo Credit: ©Stephanie Berger

First off, how fun to attend a play in Russian, which is so foreign to my ears, and feel as if I almost could have understood the whole thing without supertitles, since the emotions were so clearly portrayed. I knew from the moment I got off the subway and a woman asked me in heavily accented English which way to Fulton Street that I was in for a treat, and I felt transported even before the drama began, simply by sharing a room with so many Russians.

I remember first reading The Cherry Orchard in my sophomore year of college in a class on the major works of Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, and Beckett, and feeling like I was unlocking the secrets of love. Granted, I was of an impressionable age, but the grand, melancholic sentiments of modern theater’s forefathers seemed like as good a source as any to fabricate my understanding.

Watching the Maly Drama Theatre’s marvelous production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Lev Dodin, which ran at BAM’s Harvey Theater from February 17-27, I once again felt tugs on my heartstrings, but in a different direction. This time, the overwhelming burden of ferocious nostalgia was the primary emotional current, although unrequited love was certainly an undeniable theme, as well. (Upon hearing it again, I scribbled down matriarch Lyubov’s line about her reckless Parisian lover: “He’s like a millstone round my neck, dragging me down. But I love my millstone. I can’t live without him.” Quintessential undergraduate angst.)

This nostalgia, however, felt particularly potent in light of America’s current political climate, where we are bombarded with cries of “Make America Great Again.” Petr, the perpetual student and family tutor, proclaims, “Owning people put us 200 years behind,” in regards to Russia’s serfs and the resulting stultifying class divide. What America are we looking to return to, exactly? By Petr’s timeline, we still have about 50 years to go until we return to the natural course of social progress, as a nation. The Cherry Orchard is a relevant classic for modern times, playful in its tragi-comic portrayal of an ordinary noble family losing their estate as the balance of power shifted in Russia between the social classes.

The family members were silly with nostalgia for their former possessions, offering odes to their furniture and squealing in delight at a home movie of the titular orchard, rich with white blossoms. Lyubov was so delighted to be reunited with her bookcase, for example, that she covered it in kisses, while the rest of her family looked on in embarrassed amusement. In keeping with the general stagnancy between the past and the present, convention and innovation, the household furniture remains covered in sheets throughout the entire show, as the family holds its breath in a transitional existence, neither accepting their present reality nor able recognize an unromanticized version of the past.

With a cast of eleven, the actors shone in drawing out the particularities and peculiarities of their individual characters. The staging was brilliant, using the orchestra section of the audience, rather than the stage, as the primary playing space. Actors wove through the rows and up and down the stairs, involving the audience in their daily dramas through sheer proximity. The decaying architecture of the Harvey Theater fit perfectly with the Miss Havisham-esque atmosphere. Projection on a perfectly billowing curtain brought some delightful technical innovations to the storytelling, which were particularly relevant for Lopakhin, the entrepreneurial merchant who eventually buys the estate so he can fulfill his vision of turning the property into summer cottages.

I was struck by the parallels drawn between beauty and uselessness, ownership and destruction. All that was grand was now defunct, and the ultimate power of possession lay in the ability to dominate and destroy (as was the case in all the romantic relationships that weave throughout this story). Lopakhin is cruel to Varya, who loves him, as well as the useless Ranevskaya family, too paralyzed by their nostalgia to make any practical decisions about the future of their estate.

Amongst many brilliant moments of theatrical signification, I loved when Uncle Leonid discovers the broken billiard stick on the pool table, quite near the end of the play, as the ultimate symbol of impotence. Nothing is sacred in the crushing sweep of history and progress. Not even nostalgia.

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