From the Wilma Theater streaming production of The cherry orchard.
Photo: Johanna Austin
In Russia, you sit on your luggage before you leave. It only takes a moment: at the last minute, just as you are about to walk out the door, you sit on your suitcase. I’ve been told it’s a charm to ensure the traveler returns home and I’ve also heard that sitting helps you remember what you may have forgotten, or your home spirits of it stops chasing you. Whatever the explanation, it’s a small moment of pause – the pause for luck (or grace) before you cross your threshold.
At the end of Dmitry Krymov’s weird, wild-hearted version of The cherry orchard, which is being produced at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia and will be streamed through May 15, actually has just one member of the company sitting on a case. The conclusion of Chekhov’s 1904 play sees Madame Ranyevska’s aristocratic family abandon their property forever, supplanted by their own incompetence as well as the changing class structure and mounting debt. Justin Jain plays the usurping bourgeois Lopakhin who has bought the house and its beautiful barren orchard. Since only Lopakhin will ever return through the estate’s doors, only Jain is sitting on the luggage. The others – Krista Apple’s Ranyevska and her children and servants and followers – collapse in various poses on the floor between the hat boxes and stare disconsolately at the audience. They look at us like we might have an answer for them. The question is of course: What do we do now?
And we know the answer. Path. you have to go What happens next to Ranyevska’s crew isn’t really the concern of Chekhov’s drama, which sends his characters into some sort of vaguely watercolored future. But the staging of the Russian director Krymov, passionately engaging and engaging, cannot stop thinking about the details of this “path”. In fact, the entire fourth act of it cherry orchard was subsumed in grief and sorrow; every other element – even the piece itself – was relegated to the background.
In a show with a number of exciting extratextual embellishments (Chekhov lovers may not remember the volleyball game in orchard, but somehow Krymov squeezes you in), best of all is a giant new figure, a railroad timetable sign that seems to have regained consciousness. Huge and green, its split letters snap into position to let characters know what’s happening or make tongue-in-cheek, chilling comments. At the beginning of the show, the sign tells us that we are on our way. “NEW YORK – PARIS” is written on it and gets its message in place letter by letter. “PARIS – MOSCOW.” Then, and you must know this would happen: “MOSCOW – KHARKOV.” The real Kharkiv – written on this board in emphatically Russian and not Ukrainian – lies in ruins. Krymov can’t do that cherry orchard without at least showing us the front with an oblique hint. And since he was openly opposed to war and Putin, he can’t go home either, maybe for the rest of his life.
What is theater in the face of something like that? Heartbreak, war, permanent exile – all these things shatter simple storytelling. Two imaginatively crafted plays in New York this spring attempted to demonstrate this harrowing: Mona Mansour’s touching the vagrant trilogy, who uses what André Aciman called “mnemonic arbitrage” to suggest two possible futures for a Palestinian expelled to (or from) a Lebanese refugee camp in 1967, and Sanaz Toossi’s more elegantly I wish you were here, which envisions a group of Iranian women in the 70’s and 80’s whose numbers are slowly but inevitably being reduced – year by year – through expatriation and covert flight.
That cherry orchard The production, which is otherwise spirited and messy and fun, can’t jump forward in time like these other plays — it’s about (sort of) horror happening now. So it gives up. In the last act, the great shield takes almost complete responsibility for the text. As the company sinks into apathy, entire pages of the play appear on the blackboard, fluttering into place too quickly to be read. It helps if you already know the cherry orchard, or I suppose you could just let go of the comprehension since the plot seems as expendable as a timetable for a train we don’t take. Krymovs The cherry orchard is an example of an energetic theatrical intervention that we rarely see in this country. Americans are reluctant to adapt old plays, so it can be disorienting and exciting to watch a titan of Russian experimental theater find his hooks in Chekhov. Did we know you were only allowed to add… characters? Skip an act? Turn the governess Carlotta (Suli Holum) into a sunflower-seed-spitting agitator among the servants? You are allowed, of course, and once you tear your attention away from the narrow confines of US theater, you’ll see that a lot of people are doing it.
Krymov’s technique feels unique to the Wilma’s Hothouse Company that has formed over the years preparing for this production into something subtle and strong. It’s hard to describe, but you can tell the collective, even when they’re joking around, that something important is at stake. One of the greatest productions I’ve seen in my life (although I only partially understood it) was Krymov’s Tarabumbia. I saw it in Moscow more than a decade ago. On this show, 80 performers showed us bits and pieces of Chekhov’s plays and moments from Chekhov’s own biography, played as they rolled past the audience on a giant conveyor belt. There is a connection between that production and this one – the certainty that Chekhov can throw around a bit; the dramaturgical machine as a literalized object; feeling like a marching band could come through at any moment. They were also both parting sayings. Tarabumbia was created in honor of Chekhov’s 150th birthday, a sort of ecstatic indoor funeral procession. The cherry orchard is a show, yes, but it’s also a farewell. Krymov left Russia, but it took this whole theater full of American actors – tears in his eyes, bags at their feet – to wave him goodbye.
The cherry orchard can be streamed wilmatheater.org until May 15th.
https://www.vulture.com/2022/05/theater-review-wilma-theaters-the-cherry-orchard.html “The Cherry Orchard” by the Wilma Theater