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When Anton Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard, his last play, in 1903, he described the work as a comedy—perhaps even a farce. Its first director, the legendary Konstantin Stanislavski, disagreed. He directed his world-premiere 1904 production as a tragedy, leaving creatives and critics to debate whether the work is a comedy or a tragedy ever since. The Wilma’s new production of The Cherry Orchard, developed by director Dmitry Krymov in collaboration with the Wilma Hothouse Company, seems to have hit on the answer: it is both.
A scene-stealing sign
Designed by Irina Kruzhilina and Krymov, the set merits an early mention. It is dominated by a split-flap board—the actual name for the type of whirring, clapping midcentury sign that until recently announced departures at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Adorned with two statues the color of aged copper, the board immediately evokes a train station—fitting, as the action of the play begins in one, even if such boards would not be developed for another half-century after Chekhov first penned the play—but becomes an integral part of the story, long after the scene at the station ends. Sometimes providing context to the audience, other times serving as a scene partner for the actors onstage, the sign is as much a part of the production as any actor.
The sign is not as loud as a vintage split-flap sign would be. Still, the whooshing sound it makes as words appear and disappear throughout the play becomes a familiar underscore of the action throughout. As the play reaches its denouement, the sign, providing information and context that frequently disappears before you can finish reading it (this is a feature, not a bug) provides a constant hum made cacophonous by the actions of the actors below, even if it remains rather quiet.
Clowning and crying
Sign aside, the 11 actors of The Cherry Orchard (Krista Apple, Justin Jain, Lindsay Smiling, Jaime Maseda, Suli Holum, Campbell O’Hare, Sarah Gliko, Brett Ashley Robinson, Trevor W. Fayle, Matteo Scammell, and MK Tuomanen, who was standing in for Ross Beschler at the performance I attended) all deserve recognition. Beyond their consistent vocal work in character, they bring a sort of frenetic, clown-like physicality to the production that makes clear Krymov, like Chekhov, saw humor and farce in the story and wanted to bring it to the fore.
Which isn’t to say that the Wilma’s production of The Cherry Orchard is not also very serious. Krymov is a Russian national; his flight to the US was the last to leave Moscow for New York after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, and the situation there is never far from the surface, sometimes even alluded to directly. For as much as The Cherry Orchard is a play about aristocrats who are out of touch with reality, even at the expense of self-preservation, it is also a play about displacement. About being forced to leave your home.
This adaptation of The Cherry Orchard is chaotic and beautiful and astoundingly funny and achingly sad. Though it’s based on a work first written and produced nearly 120 years ago, and is staged around an enormous sign whose technology is neither of Chekhov’s time nor ours, it is a work both rooted in and relevant to the present as much as it was ever tied to the past.
What, When, Where
The Cherry Orchard. Adaptation by Dmitry Krymov and the Wilma Hothouse Company, from the original by Anton Chekhov; directed by Dmitry Krymov. Through May 1, 2022 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets to all remaining performances are sold out, but the production will be available to stream ($29) May 2–15, 2022. (215) 546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and a valid ID are required to attend the Wilma, and guests must remain masked throughout the show.
The Wilma Theater is a fully accessible venue with wheelchair seating reserved through the box office. Assisted listening devices are available at all performances, and open captioning is provided at select performances. Captions and audio descriptions are available for most of the Wilma’s streaming productions.
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