NEW YORK – Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” is one of the few great dramas written in the last century. It is a difficult play to produce because it is a bittersweet drama that combines broad comedy and gentle, sentimental pathos and requires a stage full of gifted actors. Recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, under the direction of Lev Dodin, presented a troupe of gifted Russian actors who gave us a new look at “The Cherry Orchard,” in Russian with English subtitles.
The play was Chekov’s last dramatic work; it opened in 1904 at the Moscow Art Theatre six months before Chekov’s death of tuberculosis at age 44. Mr. Dodin, who has been with the Maly Theatre since 1983, has put his mark on this production with a fresh and free translation that cuts a few of Chekov’s characters’ foibles while giving a few modern additions to several scenes. Yet it still is basically “The Cherry Orchard,” and his staging makes the play live and breathe, laugh and weep, for audiences today.
The play begins with the return of Lyubov Ranevskaya (Ksenia Rappoport) to her great ancestral Russian estate after six years in Paris. Her estate, with its magnificent cherry orchard, is about to be sold to pay debts. As the flutter-brained landed lady, Ms. Ranevskaya is handsome and elegant and gullible and pathetically weak in the face of crisis, as most human beings are. The house’s furniture is mostly shrouded in white sheets. Director Dodin, production designer Aleksander Borovsky and lighting designer Damir Ismagilov have effectively staged the work throughout the Harvey Theater’s auditorium, where the actors move freely in the aisles and seats and through the exits.
Ms. Ranevskaya has no money, having run through a fortune chasing after a worthless man since her husband died and her beloved little boy drowned. All she has is her family, including a chattering brother, Leonid Gayev (Sergei Vlasov), who is not just penniless but also is daft, talking to bookcases and playing imaginary games of billiards. Her daughter Anya (Danna Abyzova) is 17 and immature. There is also Varya (Elizaveta Boiarskaia), her adopted daughter, who takes care of the house and wants to marry the wealthy merchant Yermolai Lopakhin (Danila Kozlovskiy); he more or less loves her, but can’t get up the nerve to propose to her.
Mr. Dodin adds a black-and-white filmed sequence of the cherry orchard’s blossoming in white flowers in the spring as the family walks around in more happy times. The play proceeds in an atmosphere of tears and laughter as Lopakhin tries to persuade Ranevskaya to sell him the estate. He shows her on the screen how it could be made profitable with a tract of summer cottages. At first, she seems to like his idea but then refuses to accept it. He tells her that in order to survive, she must sell her house and land, including her beloved orchard. She can’t do it; she can’t face up to the fact that she is penniless. The days of great estates have ended. The Russian world is entering a new era.
The estate is bought at an auction by Lopakhin while Ranevskaya is giving a party she can’t afford. Once Lopakhin gets the estate’s keys, director Mr. Dodin allows him to break out into a song and dance of “My Way” in English, the only English heard on stage in this production. Originally, “My Way” was a French song that Paul Anka wrote English lyrics to and Frank Sinatra turned into a popular hit.
Toward the end of the play, when Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev ask Lopakhin to see the cherry orchard one final time before they leave, we can hear the axes sawing down the cherry trees. Lopakhin doesn’t take them to the orchard but instead gives them two reels of film of the cherry orchard which we had seen earlier in the play. With these last film remnants of their estate, Ranevskaya and her brother tearfully leave for Paris.
In the end, Lopakhin, the son of a serf, now a millionaire, is the only practical one in this teeming household. Even he has a human flaw, though: he can’t make up his mind to marry Varya. Or maybe he is going to look for a rich wife. Most of Chekov’s characters are dreamers rather than doers. They try to do their best in the face of problems with which most of them can’t cope. Even with Mr. Dodin’s modern touches, this “The Cherry Orchard” is vital, good-humored and well-acted, fused into a harmonious pattern by the entire cast. The life of the play and Chekov’s genius make us live their comic saga until it fades into serenity like the masterpiece it is.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.