REVIEW: The Cherry Orchard

Nothing screams “Chekhov” like a three-hour play about family drama—and The Cherry Orchard is full of it.

The Department of Theater and Drama recently wrapped up its two-week run of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Associate Professor Daniel Cantor.

The play is about a 20th-century Russian aristocratic family facing financial ruin and losing their ancestral estate, including its titular cherry orchard. Matriarch Luibóv Ranyévska and her brother Leoníd Gáyev own the estate from their youth and have fond memories of the property. Ranyévska has two children, the free-spirited Ánya and the careful Várya. Two neighborly businessmen (Borís Semyónov-Pishik and Yermolái Lopákhin) are attempting to convince the family to cut down their beloved cherry orchard for land to maintain the finances to keep their estate. The family does not take to their counsel, tumbling into the inevitable fate of the property. The play explores the turn-of-the-century social and economic transitions in the waning aristocratic era of Russia within a little family out in the country.

The original 1903 book was written in Russian by Anton Chekhov (Вишнёвый сад), so the production was performed from an English translation. I’m not sure I was particularly fond of the translation—at times, the dialogue felt watered down from the complexity and nuance I know from Chekhov’s careful character-building.

An air of nostalgia cut through the direction quite masterfully. I felt sentimental with Ms. Ranyévska and her brother Mr. Gáyev, the estate’s owners, however, the predictable fate of the home and relationships between the family and businessmen were not as intriguing to me. I craved more of a ping-pong-like drama between the businessmen and the family, leaving the plot a little flat. The drama perhaps could have gotten lost because of the aforementioned translation or the length of the nearly three-hour endeavor to arrive at the fate of their beloved estate.

The movement and musical aspects of this play caught my attention significantly. Music & Live Sound Coordination (perhaps arranged or written?) was by Hayden Steiner and Raymond Ocasio. There was a small band that performed on-stage with the actors. I loved the soundscape and chosen instrumentation for the show—some solo moments, such as a clarinet to represent youth, and a single violin for perhaps a more sentimental yearning for the past.  There were larger arrangements, for example during Ms.Ranyévska’s party held at the estate with the band in all-white clown costumes (not sure what this was referencing, if anything). Choreography and movement was handled by Drey’von Simmons, a first-year musical theater student. I thought the movement created interesting stage pictures and was thoughtfully placed in the show.

Though I struggled with the lack of motivation in the plot, the performances by the actors were overwhelmingly good. Luibóv Ranyévska was played by a stunning Kaylin Gines alongside her brother Leoníd Gáyev as Jaylen Steudle. These two captivated my attention constantly—they deeply embodied the lack of acceptance from their declining fortunes and especially from Gines, an inability to embrace change. They playfully managed their character’s see-sawing emotions from euphoria to deep anguish. I equally enjoyed the disheveled butler, Firs (Sam Hopkins). Firs is an elderly servant who represents the fading aristocratic era, and while devoted to the family, is left behind at the end, tragically forgotten in the chaos of the family’s departure. Hopkins (an apparent college student) nailed the physicality of someone three to four times his age—physically and vocally. I enjoyed his sentimental presence, and I thought a profound way to end the play with his death in the empty house.



April 13th, 8pm. Arthur Miller Theater. Images thanks to @umichtheatre on Instagram.

REVIEW: The Cherry Orchard

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.

Review: Who is Anton Chekhov?

March 22,2010

Ok, in today’s age, an answer to the above question is just a click away. It is convenient but do we really grasp the information? Does the life of Chekhov unfold in front of your eyes?  And so the “Who is….” series from the UMS, was very informative and entertaining. And relevant. As it was looking at Chekhov’s life in order to understand more about “Uncle Vanya”.

“Who is Anton Chekhov” consisted of two parts- a presentation on Chekhov’s life by Professor Makin and a talk by Kate Mendeloff about the challenges in directing “Uncle Vanya”.  There was also a scene from “Uncle Vanya”, enacted by  Residential College students.

Professor Michael Makin, from the department of Slavic Studies, started this presentation on Chekhov, in his very charming accent. His delivery was quick and very erudite and it goes to show how well he knows the subject matter at hand. Anyway, so who was Anton Chekhov?

Unlike all the popular Russian writers who were counts or members of the Russian nobility, Anton Chekhov was born to a serf as the third of six  surviving children. He attended a gymnasium- comparable to our English grammar school. His father went bankrupt and fled to Moscow leaving his children and wife behind.   Anton joined medical school and also took over the responsibility for the whole family. To pay his tuition fess and to support his family, he wrote stories and sketches.

He became a physician and suffered from tuberculosis for a long time.  Chekhov didn’t take his writing seriously until Dmitry Grigorovich, one of the leading Russian writers of the time sent him a letter telling him about his immense talent. Chekhov’s artistic ambition bloomed and he soon won a Pushkin Prize for the short-story collection- “At Dusk”.  From being the son of an impoverished serf, he became a landowner when he bought the small estate of Melikhovo.

Ok, so how is this all relevant?

It is important for us to understand Chekhov as a person before we understand Chekhov as a playwright or writer- as most of who he was and what he valued can be reflected in his characters and work.  Well, Chekhov wrote what he saw and about a life that he was immersed in. His writings abound with references to the simple country life and the trials faced by a Russian in those days. It is also important to understand his background as to why he stands out from among the other Russian writers.

That said, Professor Makin told us that as a playwright, Chekhov was a flop initially. His plays “the Sea Gull” and “the wood demon” were fiascos when they were first staged. To some extent, they were way ahead of their times as they lacked the melodrama. They were waiting for the right people to act and direct it. Everytime, Chekhov failed as a playwright, he threatened never to return to it. But he always came back.

The innovative  Moscow Art Theatre found by Stanislavski for doing “naturalistic” theatre was what Chekhov needed. The production of “The Seagull” by Stanislavski was a huge success. Subsequently, Chekhov wrote his other plays for the Moscow Art Theatre  and “Uncle Vanya” is one of them.

“Uncle Vanya” is the story of Vanya (duh!), who is the uncle of Sonya (Actually it is a cleaned-upversion of “The wood demon”). He takes care of Sonya’s farm which was bequeathed to her by her now deceased mother. The two of them send the proceeds from the farm to Professor Serebryakov. The Professor marries a woman who is very young , Elena and sicne he can’t afford to live in the city anymore, he comes back to the country estate. This arrival causes such a ruckus in the lives of Vanya and Sonya.

So the plot is about Vanya feeling that he has totally wasted his life and what he does. Why Chekhov called it a comedy is unclear. Though it has a few laughs in it, I don’t think it is comedy.

Professor Kate Mendeloff  explained how Chekhov and his plays helped in actually laying out the foundation of the rules for all theatre and acting today.  The techniques and methods developed by Stanislavski are taught in every drama school today.

Residential college is putting up a production of “Uncle Vanya” which Mendeloff is directing. They enacted a scene from it. It was the opening act where the “long night” where the professor keeps everyone up by his constant griping is shown. It was interesting and cleverly done.

On the whole, it was a very interesting session. It made me wonder as to how how much of the writer was in the character they created and how much of it was what the writer wanted to be.

Preview: Maly Drama Theatre’s Uncle Vanya- You have to see it!

This preview is different from the rest. I am going to tell you to go see the Maly Drama Theatre’s “Uncle Vanya”. But when I tell you that it is one of the most memorable and brilliant  theatre performances that you will see, then I am speaking from experience as I already saw their show yesterday!

I have never seen anything like this play before. I am just so enamored of the way the play was staged, the way the characters came to life by the superb acting, the beauty of the play in its original Russian language and everything about the show that I felt that just going to one show wasn’t enough to write a review on it. So I am going again tonight.

As for the acting, it seems as if the actors were born to play the characters. The actors are just absolutely stunning. The female leads of  Elena and Sonya are breath-takingly beautiful.  I am just so in love with this production.

Maly Drama Theaters Uncle Vanya and Elena
Maly Drama Theatre's Uncle Vanya and Elena

Anton Chekhov,a playwright who got recognition late, got everything right in this play. I will tell ya tons and tons about this play. Just promise me that you will see it.

Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya

Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg

Lev Dodin, artistic director

Saturday, March 27, 8 pm
Sunday, March 28, 2 pm

Power Center

Yous in love with Chekhov and the Maly Drama Theatre,

Krithika, for [art]seen

Preview: Who is Anton Chekhov?


The charismatic Anton Chekhov
The charismatic Anton Chekhov

Next Week, “Uncle Vanya” will be performed under the auspices of UMS  (more on this to come). It is a tricky and complex plot that baffles a lot of people. So getting to know its writer, Anton Chekhov, might help in our comprehension or at least make us accept the difficulty of the plot  for what it is and understand why it was intended thus.

Chekhov, hailed to be among the greatest short-story writers of all time by many,  was a highly cerebral artist who started writing in his spare time while training to be a physician, actually in order to make money. He continued to do so but didn’t pay much attention to writing as an art until Grigorovich, another eminent Russian writer told him that he had true talent. 

Chekhov started to pay more attention to his writing and always tried to experiment and depart from the road well trodden. His stories are tedious and it was Chekhov’s conviction that a true artist raises questions that didn’t exist and it was not his onus to solve those issues. His views in his plays and stories are definitely worth a read.

At the Ann Arbor District Library (Downtown branch) this monday evening, Michael Makin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Residential College Drama Lecturer Katherine Mendeloff will examine Chekhov’s role in Russian literature and society and as transformer and innovator of Russian drama. There will be a discussion specifically around the play “Uncle Vanya” and parts of it will be acted out by U of M students.

Prof Kate Mendeloff
Prof Kate Mendeloff

When I saw Prof Mendeloff’s name on the program, I knew I had seen it somewhere. I thought hard before I realised that she is the one of the key forces behind the Shakespeare in the Arb series! Every summer, a Shakespearen play is enacted at the Nichol’s arboretum and Kate Mendeloff  directs the plays.

Twelfth Night- Shakespeare at the Arb
Twelfth Night- Shakespeare at the Arb

I remember attending “Twelfth Night” last summer. It suddenly started pouring   and as the  brave actors still got on with the show, she was with them till the end, a bit drenched though. I thought that it was so nice of the director to be through it all. Also, her direction of the plays are awesome too. It will be a treat to listen to her. 

 So, to summarize,

What: Who is Anton Chekhov?

Where: Downtown Library (AADL), Multi-purpose room (visit for directions to the downtown library)

When: Monday, March 22, 2010, 7 pm to 8.30 pm

$$: Admission FREE!

Chekhov is said to have been among the first to use stream-of-consciousness techniques in his works. Interested to know what that is all about? See you at the AADL then !

Yours sincerely,

Krithika, for [art]seen