Theatre yesterday and today



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The latest adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, by the newest Tony Award winning playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans), began previews last night at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. It will be, if I can trust my online sources, roughly the 30th production of the play in New York, on Broadway or Off, over the last ninety-three years. The first New York production was in 1923, and if a time machine was available, what student of theatre would not want to be in attendance? It was an import from Russia’s Moscow Art Theatre with Olga Knipper-Tchekhova (widow of Chekhov) as Madame Ranevskaya, and none other than Konstantin Stanislavsky, the father of modern acting technique, as her brother Leonid.

Konstantin Stanislavski as Gayev in The Cherry Orchard

To make it even more historic, in addition to Knipper and Stanislavski, much of the cast were part of the ensemble of the play when it premiered in Moscow on January 17, 1904. Coming to New York nineteen years later was part of an international tour that included performing in rep Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Turgenev’s The Lady from the Provinces and Tsar Fyodor Ivanovitch and Brothers Karamazoff, both by Tolstoy. How’s that for ambitious? The tour began in Berlin a few months prior to New York and went on to Prague, Zagreb and Paris. After New York, the tour went on to Boston and Philadelphia before it ended in Chicago. Though not a financial success, it was an artistic one. As a young actor, Lee Strasberg attended the New York production of The Cherry Orchard and was entranced in such a way that it took him on a path that led to his adapting Stanislavski’s acting “method” for his own, where he became a leader in the movement of a more realistic acting approach that changed the American theatre. Of course it wasn’t just Strasberg who took Stanislavski’s approach to heart. Stella Adler, a contemporary (and bitter rival) of Strasberg, went so far as to go to Moscow to study under the great man. Others who taught various versions of Stanislavski’s techniques were Sanford Meisner, Robert Lewis, Richard Boleslawski and Michael Chekhov (nephew to the playwright) among others.

It was Stanislavski himself who directed The Cherry Orchard in its original incarnation (though curiously he took no credit for the New York production). Controversy surrounded Stanislavsky’s interpretation, as Chekhov openly disliked what he had done to his play. It all stemmed over the question of whether it was a comedy or a tragedy. It was Chekhov’s contention (and after all, he was the playwright) that it was a comedy. But Stanislavski saw it as a tragedy. The rift this caused between these two most faithful of collaborators was short-lived, as tragically, Chekhov died from tuberculosis at age forty-four, a mere six months after The Cherry Orchard premiered.

Anton Chekhov

Of all the classic plays I’ve seen in my lifetime of theatregoing, I believe I have seen more productions of The Cherry Orchard than any other, including those by Shakespeare. One of the reasons is that I seek it out whenever I can as it is one of my favorite plays, but also because every production is so entirely different from the next. It is widely open to interpretation, though more often than not, I find it sadly misinterpreted, which has led to many disappointments. I have seen productions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London and most recently a production from Russia’s Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg that played the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year. For me, this was a revelation. Not only was I seeing it spoken in its native language, but it was an inspiring take that felt like it was directed by some twenty-something hotshot fresh out of grad school. Instead, the Maly’s artistic director, Lev Dodin, who adapted and directed it, is a seventy-two-year-old veteran who has clearly not run out of fresh and exciting ideas. I will never forget after more than two hours of hearing the beauty of the Russian language punctured when in Lopakhin’s most important speech in the play, he suddenly broke into song. And not some Russian folk song, but Paul Anka’s “My Way”— in English! It was one of the most arresting moments in theatre I’ve ever experienced. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but it sang to me.

In 1977, while a student at SUNY Purchase, I arranged for my acting class to attend as a group the now famous production of The Cherry Orchard that was produced at Lincoln Center. Directed by Andre Serban, a Romanian émigré, the show was a critical sensation. Performed on close to a bare stage against a brilliant white set designed by Santo Loquasto, it starred Irene Worth in a transcendent performance and featured the fourth Broadway stage appearance of a young actress named Meryl Streep in the small role of the maid, Dunyasha. It was an incredible performance, though when we discussed the play in my acting class, my teacher, Joan Potter, was not all that thrilled with what Streep had done with the role. I protested, “But she was brilliant!” Joan’s response was, “Yes. But is Dunyasha brilliant?” It was a fair point.

In addition to Raul Julia as Lopakhin in this Cherry Orchard, I have been fortunate over the years to have seen the Lopakhin’s of Albert Finney in London; Alfred Molina in two separate productions in Los Angeles and Peter Riegert in Chicago in a version adapted by David Mamet. Not to mention (or now mention by name) Danila Kozlovskiy, the Russian actor who seduced me completely with his rendition of "My Way."

I am looking forward to this latest production, not only curious as to how Stephen Karam will adapt it, but because of my deep and abiding affection for The Cherry Orchard. With only a handful of plays to his credit, due to his career being cut short at such a young age, Chekhov is among my top three favorite playwrights. Shakespeare’s the other one (the third would take me days to narrow down if I was forced to do so). If you have never seen something by Chekhov, you could do worse than take the risk of finding out for yourself what the Roundabout’s production might be like. It officially opens on October 16.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.