After almost three weeks of a sold-out run, the Wilma Theater’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard has come to a close. Dmitry Krymov, a world-renowned Russian director collaborated with the Wilma’s acclaimed and award-winning resident artists, the HotHouse Company. Together, these artists created a whirlwind one hundred and ten minute adaptation. It is safe to say this piece was not your average Chekhovian play… or was it?
On the Director:
Krymov, who has seen huge success in the Moscow theater scene, is known for his experimental directorial style. Had one seen his work without the play’s title above the marquis, it might not have been clear that this was a classic Chekhov play. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Krymov spoke about his relationship with classical authors.
He said, “I ask for his forgiveness that I’m not using his concrete texts that often. I’m using the ideas but not the text itself… Somebody else will be more serious and do the whole thing the way [he] wrote it.”
Krymov often directs and adapts classical work, which begs the question: If you’re going to adapt classic plays to make them so modern and so far from their original source text, why stick to the classics at all?
The answer is simple: federally funded theater. In Russia, state theaters are subsidized by the government. The subsidies, of course, come with a catch. The theaters are supported financially, but are therefore limited to creating work that is in line with the Kremlin’s point of view. Modern plays that have the potential to critique Russian society and the government’s power are few and far between. As a result, most large, federally funded theaters end up producing works by classic playwrights Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Anton Chekhov, among some others. The loophole to this censorship is creating adaptations. Hence, Dmitry Krymov.
Experimental artists, like Krymov, who like to create big, messy shows that need big, fancy budgets have created thriving work in Moscow. In this Philadelphia Cherry Orchard, the players start the action by creating a mess of cherries all over the floor that they continue to purposefully slip on and stain their earth-tone costumes. The world of this play exists in a chaotic, ticking time bomb of a house. The family risks financial ruin and is forced to auction off their home. As the auction nears, the space gets messier.
Tree branches, broken teacups, a make-shift game of volley-ball stretch across in the family’s living room. The family’s staff chews pumpkin seeds, and then spits the shells across the stage for the duration of four monologues. Justin Jain, who plays Lopakhin, climbs through the center of the audience and disassembles a stagelight from the booth. He goes on to carry it across another row of patrons and down back to the stage. When Lyubov Andreevena, played by Krista Apple, gets to her famous final monologue, the other characters shush her. She doesn’t get to soliloquize about her beloved orchard because even the actors are like, “enough already, we get it.”
A Modern Tone in a Classic Play
Fans of Chekhov and a students of the Russian theater might find Krymov’s take on this world refreshing. While the house is far less literal and the source text is juggled until it’s dropped, what was true of Chekov’s Cherry Orchard is still true of Krymov’s. The class dynamics of a post-Revolution Russia may look and sound different today, but are still unfortunately relevant. This dynamic is embedded as one of Krymov’s central conflicts.
Moreover, Krymov rarely lets the play feel somber, which is difficult to do. He upholds Ckehov’s original intention that Cherry Orchard as a comedy. In the United States, theater artists often forget that. In a moment of direct address to the audience; however, actor Lindsay Smiling broke character to talk to us. He expressed the company’s gratitude for joining them in this game of pretend during a time of world crisis. Smiling spoke about Russian invasion of Ukraine. The action of the play paused for several minutes. He detailed some of the destruction in Mariupol. He reiterated how dire the situation is for Ukrainian citizens.
What’s Next for Krymov?
At the time rehearsals began for this project, Krymov had intentions of returning home to Moscow at the end of the show’s run. His future remains uncertain as Russia has repeatedly fired theater artists who have been vocal about their support for Ukraine, according to an article on Qatar’s independent news source Aljazeera. Others have voluntarily quit to make a statement in support of Ukraine. The consequences of showing opposition to the Russian state are severe. As stated by Robert Coalson for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty news source, Aleksandra Skochilenko, a Russian artist, could face up to ten years in prison because she attempted to distribute information about Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine through price tags in a store.
To see Dmitry Krymov’s classic Russian adaptation in 2022 is a privilege. Krymov assumes a huge risk by creating a work that condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, Krymov reminds us that while we sit in a comfortable theater telling stories, Ukrainians are fighting for their lives. He also reminds us that comedy cannot exist without tragedy, and vice versa.