The Cherry Orchard was the last play written by 19th century writer Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, famous for his short stories on the day to day life of Russian’s upper middle class, is today considered to be an influential figure on short story form. His writing focuses on individual’s responses and behaviors to quotidian life in Russia, with an emphasis on how their views of reality change responses.
The Cherry Orchard revolves around one family in Russia returning to their estate in the country after a hiatus to Paris. The estate features an idyllic orchard, which is beautiful but holds tragic memories and not known for producing a crop that can turn a profit. There are many people living in the house now, the many daughters of the mistress of the estate, as well as servants, and suitors too. When the family returns to the estate, it is evident that the estate must be sold. Not only does the plot concern the selling of the estate, but the more relevant focus is on how each character responds to the debt and the necessary auctioning of the estate. The mother, or mistress of the estate, is the most shaken by the selling of the estate. Amongst all the characters, she is the most oblivious to the dilemma and the direness of the situation, and this causes all the other characters to constantly reflect back on the mother and her denial of the situation.
In the performance at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater, put on by the cast of the Rude Mechanicals, a student acting organization, the text was realized more fully as the intimate lens into human character that Chekhov’s work seeks to create. The play begins in an abstract manner. While audience members still chat, the cast starts to enter stage one by one. After five minutes had past, maybe five or six characters had taken the stage, engaging with the set or with each other in silence. The audience had hushed now, and a low humming sound was playing from the stage. As the whole cast took the stage, each seemed to be trying to embody the personality of their character through different positions and in silence. I thought the approach of not officially having a curtain open was an interesting way to initiate the beginning of the play, but I was confused by what happened next. As all the members lined up at the front of the stage and stared motionless into the audience, suddenly the music cut and they all screamed in a sort of joyful shriek and proceeded to run about the stage. Some people took apart some of the set, running around with it. Others leaped in the air, shouted, overall making the stage into a questionable space. It made me think about whether this was to be part of the play, and what the purpose of the initial solemn introduction was.
Eventually the cast quieted down and resumed their characters. It was a distinct transition and made the beginning of the play that more striking. No one had said anything yet, the characters will still anonymous, and yet the audience had been shocked and silenced into paying attention. If there is any critique to be made of the way this play started, it would be that the personalities of the many different characters are hard to really make distinct in a way that makes the contrast with the loss of in-character acting not as successful to the audience.
As there were many characters, each was introduced through scenes with only a few of the characters present. The pay did a good job of contextualizing the characters and their identities from the start. Scenes felt like they spent a lot of time in one moment, almost as if trying to mimic real time. A conversation would take place in what appeared to be a living room and it felt like so much was said, and each of the characters on their own had so much to say, that the scene was to last the length of a five hour long fire-side chat, though this was not actually the case. This is the same feeling felt while reading Chekhov’s work. He details conversations with so much information and naturalness of character that scenes feel very much like a conversation taking place in real life. Often times even going beyond what might be expected in a normal conversation, the dialogue between characters expanding to make up for any lack of context an audience or reader might feel.
The play overall was an interesting experience for me personally. I had never read this play before, but I am familiar with Chekhov’s work. I found that actors taking on the roles of characters in a Chekhov play, and probably one of his novels as well, is a laborious task. Dialogues are lengthy and to keep engaged with the spoken word requires a lot of emotion. I left the play feeling glad to have finally gotten to see a Chekhov play.