Russian classic, Vassar oldie reborn in Martel Theater

“The Cherry Orchard” is hitting the Vassar stage once again. The production was last performed on campus in 1960. This time, live music will help transport the audience back to Chekhov’s Russia. Photo courtesy of Vassar College Media Relations
“The Cherry Orchard” is hitting the Vassar stage once again. The production was last performed on campus in 1960. This time, live music will help transport the audience back to Chekhov’s Russia. Photo courtesy of Vassar College Media Relations
“The Cherry Orchard” is hitting the Vassar stage once again. The production was last performed on campus in 1960. This time, live music will help transport the audience back to Chekhov’s Russia. Photo courtesy of Vassar College Media Relations

“‘The Cherry Orchard’ is by no means an ‘inanimate thing,’ but one of those living works of art which we do not allow to die,” wrote Professor of English Mary E. Giffin in 1960.

In its 12.7.60 issue, The Miscellany News an­nounced the arrival of “The Cherry Orchard” to campus. It was performed as a celebration of the centennial of both Vassar and the birth of Anton Chekhov (“Experimental Theatre Stages Chekov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’”). The article pro­claimed, “The Experimental Theatre is to be congratulated upon undertaking the produc­tion of a classic so well known that every nu­ance of its lines has become a subject of literary criticism.”

56 years later, and after 112 years in produc­tion, “The Cherry Orchard” endures as an im­mutably classic work which refuses to die. Writ­ten by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and directed by Professor of Drama Chris Grabows­ki, “The Cherry Orchard” will be performed in the Martel Theater on Thursday, April 7, Friday, April 8 and Saturday, April 9, beginning at 7:30 each night.

According to the Vassar Drama Department website, “The play is about the passing of an era, and portrays the social climate of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, when the aristocrats and land-owning gentry were losing their wealth and revealed themselves to be in­capable of coping with their change in status.”

Not unlike the United States, Russia had no tangible plan for how its society would evolve post-liberation, and “The Cherry Orchard” cap­tures this societal instability. “Chekhov wrote in this moment, and I think this speaks to us, this moment of incredible disruption,” Grabowski remarked. “For better or for worse everything was changing and people didn’t know what the future was going to look like.”

Born in 1860, Chekhov himself was witness to the uncertainty of the time. Grabowski ex­plained, “He was born the year the serfs were freed and he died before the first Russian rev­olution—so he lives in this incredibly interest­ing moment, where he doesn’t know how vastly different the future is about to be.” He added, “There’s a sense that the world is changing, and changing fast, like our own world.”

While Russia was tentatively stepping into a new era, Chekhov was busy creating the foun­dation for an entirely new kind of theatre. Assis­tant Director Olivia Zerphy ’17 commented, “In the play, there are these wonderful little hints of surrealism, like what’s to come in drama, what the next large world movements were.”

Chekhov drew from the confusion and un­certainty of the time to set the precedent for theatrical movements, and from this uncertain­ty he established a newfound sense of nuance not yet common in theatre. “Chekhov didn’t invent subtext, but he perfected it,” Grabows­ki clarified. “What the characters are saying is only a piece of the truth. They have strong mo­tivations, and really what you’re seeing when you see a Chekhov play isn’t really a plot; you’re seeing a set of relationships, and some of the nuanced ways that those people communicate with each other.”

Having studied the complexities of Chek­hov’s writing firsthand, Zerphy brought back a sense of authenticity to this production of “The Cherry Orchard.” “I studied at the Moscow Art Theatre, which is where Chekhov’s plays were produced,” she explained.

“It was founded by Stanislavsky, who was friends with Chekhov,” Zerphy continued. Her experience in Moscow was invaluable to the production. She mentioned, “While I was in Russia, we also studied Russian folk dancing,” which was the basis for the choreography of a jubilant dance number in Act III.

“The Cherry Orchard” will be authentic not only in dance, but in music as well. Live mu­sicians from the Hudson Valley band, Caprice Rouge, will be featured onstage as the source of lively klezmer music. Having found a wax cylin­der recording of the Moscow Art Theatre’s first production of “The Cherry Orchard,” Grabows­ki confirmed that the music would indeed pay homage to the original. “You could hear the music in the background, and though the script suggested that it was sort of European, it defi­nitely sounded Russian. That was an exciting discovery,” he said.

Ensemble Guest Matt Stein ’18 [Full Disclo­sure: Matt Stein is a Reporter for The Miscel­lany News] commented on the dynamic live music brings to the show. He explained, “We rehearsed to a recording and now that we have a live band, it adds an element of realism to the show. This is what Chekhov originally had in mind with his characters, so it brings the show that much closer to the real thing.”

He continued, “The intermission actually ends with the band proceeding through the aisles onto stage before the curtain rises. It signals the start and it’s also a fun way for the show to enter the audience’s world, breaking the fourth wall.”

From the intricacies of klezmer music to en­semble size, Grabowski paid special attention to the most historically overlooked aspects of “The Cherry Orchard”—and it shows. Kaitlin Prado ’19 emphasized her appreciation for the incorporation of a bigger ensemble than those of many productions, which feature a pared-down cast of primarily lead characters. “I feel like this was a very nice gesture to incorporate some talented underclassmen, because not ev­eryone can have a lead obviously, but I think so many people have lots of talent and this is a way to incorporate them,” she said.

112 years since its debut, “The Cherry Or­chard” continues to captivate audiences and actors alike. “It’s a very well-written play and we just have such a good group of people,” Prado remarked. “I’ve read the play way too many times by now and I’ve seen it over and over again, and I’m still taken in these certain moments that have been created as we’ve put everything together. It’s so beautiful every time and I can only imagine what it’s going to be like for an audience sitting in the dark seeing it for the first time.”

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