Krista Apple and Justin Jain in the Wilma Theatre’s adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard.” (Photo by Johanna Austin)
“I am Ranyevska.”
In a Flaubertian moment (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”), his eyes filled with tears, Dmitry Krymov contemplates his lost home as the news from Ukraine unfolds. The famous Russian director is in Philadelphia to direct Chekhov’s Tit’s Cherry Orchard at the Wilma Theater (runs through May 1 and may stream May 2-15).
Perhaps no play is more closely associated with Russia than Chekhov, and his last play, The Cherry Orchard, related to Russia itself. So no one ignores the elephant in the room. Through an interpreter, Krymov talks about the current political reality:
I’m in the same position as Ranyevska, right? My cherry orchard just took some. In Moscow at the moment, I have five shows that are supposed to be rehearsed and opened, and one film that is almost finished. I have plans for three years ahead. And here, I have nothing. I got a return ticket for three days after opening. Airplanes don’t fly and I don’t go there. In Moscow, the situation is terrible, terrible. It’s not possible. So I ask myself the same question: What are you going to do after this? Not Paris, New York. But it doesn’t matter, right?
Indeed the Chekhovian theme, the theme within The Cherry Orchard: It’s here, now it’s gone. The life.
And we look back and think we were so stupid. We treat everything that’s happening in the country like, “Well, it’s worse, it’s worse, but we can deal with it, we can survive, we can live, we can do it. I can do it. And you can’t live and you can’t do it, and that’s it. And answers from insiders The Cherry Orchard very similar: “We can live, we can live.” Basically, you can watch the game as if you are looking in the mirror, sometimes it is very scary when you look in the mirror.
That mirror became even more disturbing on opening night, when some of the people at the Wilma Theater on opening night praised Yasha (Matteo Scammell), the creepy and evil Mme. Ranyevska’s company. People often laugh at the saddest times. Those unfamiliar with Chekhov’s play may find it confusing.
The performance of Wilma begins with the actress playing Varya (Sarah Gliko) playing an accordion and singing the plaintive line, “I lay in a garden / In her wedding dress.” Krymov then picks up this band-aid of melancholy and gives us the first of many bad things: Dunyasha (Brett Ashley Robinson) drops a bowl of cherries. He tells us, “I’m gone,” because the stage is covered with cut-up cherries to hold—look for the signs where you want—everyone’s clothes.
The frequent shedding, the shedding of tears, the noise of conversation, the breaking of things, the tearing of things – all these things show that this pandemonium is the reality of these lives. beneath the traditional tragicomic nature that often characterizes Chekhov’s productions.
The centerpiece of the miniature, co-designed by Krymov and Irina Kruzhilina, is a large train flying board. This is Krymov’s guiding principle, especially in the way Chekhov’s play works on arrival and departure. He explains why and how important it is:
You’re very opinionated, dramatic, aren’t you? But this value allows you to express through the material, and you tell the story on the stage through that value. Telling the audience that everyone is at the train station is not telling. But if you can talk to that train board, soon you can talk, talk to the board. Then he turns from a simple train driver to a counselor and a caring father and an elderly father who sometimes doesn’t understand anything, although he really understands everything. Or someone really jealous, or…
Sometimes the class helps, sometimes the class gets in the way. That’s the end, if you will – the end is upon us. But this train is like a phone. It’s very scary. We have it in our pocket now, because you never know what information you will get from that gadget. It’s an actor’s choice, an actor, just an actor. It was created for the show.
Krymov’s work is based on moments of excitement and/or negative emotions combined like the colored lights that are set for Ranyevska’s return. Lopakhin (Justin Jain), enraged that the family is blind and deaf, cuts down a cherry tree and drags it across the stage; Ranyevska (Krista Apple) holds the flowers in her hands and murmurs sweetly to them. This pose is introduced at the end, when Lopakhin drops his hands in a Pietà.
Sometimes these moments are difficult, as when Lindsay Smiling, who plays Gayev, talks in her own voice about Krymov’s discussion of the war in Ukraine in exercises.
I spoke with the actors who play the two main characters, wondering how the actor managed to do it all.
“A door to chaos” is how Justin Jain, the actor playing Lopakhin, describes the experience of working with Dima, as they call the director. Jain explained that he thought Krymov had given them permission to go through that door in the chaos he was causing. Krista Apple, who plays Ranyevska, chimed in with her own catchphrase for the process: “Playing games.”
Jain and Apple are members of the HotHouse Group, a group created by former Wilma art director Blanka Zizka a few years ago. This group of intrepid actors is trained to meet theatrical challenges, and the various European tour guides put them under pressure. Zizka, a Czech, said he wanted to show Americans what experimental cinema has been like in Eastern Europe for half a century or so.
Krymov, who has worked with companies in his native Russia, spoke highly of the HotHouse Company:
These actors are punished, so you can work very quickly here. Here, I make my mistakes and my mistakes, not their problem. They solve problems, they are all very smart. They have verbal technique and physical nimble. And they have good intentions, and that is very important. I am amazed at how nice people are.
Tatyana Khaikin is translating from Russian to English, and the team is used to working with these short delays between different languages. The daily improvisations are recorded by an editor, creating a final document that is “95 percent set.” This live-action production can rehash many of Chekhov’s lines. And the process goes back over the years: These artists have put in their photos since 2018, when this project started, because it will be left by the virus. Their improvisations, perhaps paradoxically, are tightly controlled. Reminding me that the play was against its time, Jain said he hoped Chekhov would approve of this innovation. The Cherry Orchard. He imagines the playwright “scrambling his way out of his grave, screaming ‘Fuck yeah!'”
What does Chekhov have to say about the dire state of our world? It’s still in play.
Toby Zinman (he) is a writer in Philadelphia.
Production credits: Director/adapter/co-set design: Dmitry Krymov; field manager: Patreshettarlini Adams; set and costume designer: Irina Kruzhilina; lighting designer: Thom Weaver; sound producer: Daniel Ison; stage manager: Leslie Ann Boyden; EDI Manager: Noelle Diane Johnson; director: Jungwoong Kim; editor: MK Tuomanen; cultural relations: Yury Urnov; translator and text consultant: Tatyana Khaikin; videographer and editor: Leslie Rivera
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