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Unearthing Cherry Orchard's Roots

Anton Chekhov originally wrote Cherry Orchard for Constantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre. While he was working on it, Chekhov wrote to Stanislavsky's wife and warned her, "Not a drama but a comedy has emerged from me, in places even a farce." After reading the completed script, Stanislavsky wrote back, "This is not a comedy or a farce, as you wrote, it is a tragedy..." The 1904 Moscow production was a tearful affair, but the production evolved over time. As Russian theaters were being co-opted by revolutionary forces, the play was hailed as describing the inevitable collapse of the aristocratic class. The production toured to Eastern Europe and finally, in 1906, to Berlin where it was played in Russian to ecstatic reviews. Constance Garnett's "pretty, lyrical" translation opened in London in 1911. The stodgy, post-Victorian British were leery of the play's morals, proclaiming themselves shocked by Charlotta's questionable parentage and Lovey's references to her Parisian lover. British critics simply did not know what to make of the play and called it "stationary," "silly" and "trivial." One generous reviewer suggested that it was "a display of Russian temperament that no English actor was ready for." Audiences rarely stayed for the third act. In the latter part of the 20th century, the Two Formidable Peters of the British stage — Hall and Brooks — each directed very different versions of the play. Hall's was first, appearing at the National Theatre in 1978 to great acclaim. This version was translated by Michael Frayn (author of Noises Off and Copenhagen), with a cast including Albert Finney and Ben Kingsley. In 1981, Brook staged a conceptually daring production, performed in French and played on a bare, abstract set that went on to tour Africa and the Middle East. Brook's production — stripped of its scenery, curtain and intermission — was remounted in New York in 1988 with Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt, David Hyde-Pierce and Mike Nussbaum in the cast, and subsequently toured the Soviet Union and Japan. In 1985, Mike Alfreds directed a landmark production at London's National Theatre in which the cast was asked to reinvent each character's "super-objective" (a Stanislavskian term which refers to a general desire or motivation which drives the character over the entire arc of the play) on a nightly basis. This cast, which included Ian McKellen as Lopakin, came to Chicago in 1986. A substantial interval passed before Chekhov's plays were appreciated in America. The Moscow Art Theatre toured Cherry Orchard through the States in Russian in 1924 and was lauded for its naturalism, which was not yet the stylistic lynchpin of the American theater. Heywood Broun, a heavyweight critic in his day, declared that he was "moved more profoundly than ever before in theater." Cherry Orchard has received a number of critically lauded American productions in the past few decades. The most famous is Andrei Serban's 1977 Lincoln Center performance, which featured Irene Worth as a histrionic, aristocratic Lovey, Raul Julia as Lopakin and a young Meryl Streep as Dunyasha. This version, translated by Jean-Claude van Itallie, highlighted the farcical and political aspects of the play and was performed on a poetically minimalist set by Santo Loquasto (Steppenwolf's Morning Star and The Dresser). Steppenwolf ensemble member Austin Pendleton performed in the 1980 Williamstown Theatre production directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos, which also featured Colleen Dewhurst, Blythe Danner and Christopher Reeve in the cast. Closer to home, David Mamet's murky, sexually charged adaptation was premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 1985.