Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” raises many questions for its audiences each performance. But for millennials, perhaps those questions are more existential.
The Cherry Orchard
April 3-4, 8pm; April 5, 2pm
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre
$5 for students, $8 for adults
“Every single day, we are met with this endless stream of horrible things in the world: Ebola, Ferguson, rights being taken away in Indiana,” said SMTD senior Ellie Todd. “But we also have BuzzFeed; we have cat pictures; we have The Next 21 Ways to Fry an Egg.”
Todd is directing Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” produced by student group Rude Mechanicals. So what do any of these millennial symptoms Todd describes have to do with Chekhov’s famous play?
They represent forms of distraction, forms of denial. Finding out, “What Pizza Topping Are You?” allows us to avoid confronting other problems. This tendency to avoid difficult realities by constructing alternate realities was part of Russian early 20th century culture as well.
The play follows widow Lyuba Ranevsky and her household as she comes to terms with the approaching auction date of the family’s cherry orchard. Left with few other options for paying their debt, the orchard is ultimately sold to the son of a peasant, Yermolay Lopakhin.
For a drama that is profoundly historical and locked in a unique time, its themes remain remarkably pertinent. Instead of BuzzFeed as distraction, the pervasive coping mechanism of the time was, simply, denial.
“They are constantly going into town, spending money and lending money. If you are talking about selling the orchard, I’m gong to talk louder about whose smoking those cheap cigars over there,” Todd said describing the parallel.
This production aims to draw out parallels like these by taking the play out of the time and place of 19th-century Russia.
“The set is just trees and basically this bowl that’s painted like a giant tree ring. So we’re quite literally in one of the trees,” Todd said. “We’re going for a very timeless feel, our soundscape is ethereal and timeless and so are the costumes.”
There are other, deeper universal challenges of the human condition that the play explores.
“At every level, there’s a microcosm of the macrocosm. There’s the issue of wealth and big social change, but the metaphors get smaller and smaller until you’re left with very human truths,” Todd said. “It’s about a feeling of value. At its very core, you can link all questions of wealth and status and such to a very simple feeling of fear. Fear that you are irrelevant.”
Lyuba’s relevance comes from the orchard. The prospect of its sale and destruction is about her own sense of losing standing in the world. The play is brilliant in its many petals of symbolism, held together neatly by lively characters and subtle comedy.
Chekhov’s unique sense of comedy is something Todd found captivating as she continued her reading and research process. Although Chekhov’s work is often seen as gloomy and sad, the playwright himself had very different intentions. Todd recited a quote of his addressing this:
“You tell me that people cry at my plays. I’ve heard others say the same. But that’s not why I wrote them … All I wanted was to say truthfully to people: ‘Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!’ The important thing is that people should realize that, since when they do, they will most certainly create another, better life for themselves. And so long as this different life does not exist, I shall continue to say to people again and again: ‘Please understand that your life is bad and dreary.’ What is there to cry about in this?”
Amid the metaphor, scattered laughter and bits of tragedy, Chekhov’s ask is for self-reflection, as is Todd’s.
“I can’t change everything in the world, but I can create something that will spark an idea in somebody’s mind. Success to me is that people in the audience go home and spend time in reflection, that the themes of the play inspire them to look at those themes in their own lives,” Todd said.
With a cast of 14, teams of costume and set designers, producers through the Rude Mechanicals, Todd, and her assistant Wygodny (who acts in the play as well), it will be clear to audience members that an enormous amount of work went into the production, both on and off the stage.
“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘I’ll just never be as smart as Chekhov,’” Todd said. Understanding the play in the first place takes a commitment. The production is an accomplishment.
“The word that we feel the most is ‘devoted.’ A lot of people have passion, but the difference between a lot of people and those few that make amazing things is devotion. That’s what we’ve tried to be,” she said. “We eat, sleep and breathe the cherry orchard.”
Tears? Laughter? Existential Crisis? It is hard to say what audience members will feel after “The Cherry Orchard.” Whatever your reaction, prepare to set aside some time to figuring it out.