Adaptable: Chekhov

A so-called “problem” play bears little resemblance to a “problem child” – in the topsy-turvy realm of theater a problem becomes an invitation to limitless reinvention and amusement. No matter how many times the problem is “solved,” it begs a new solution to suit a new “now,” thus the enduring debate as to the proper mood of The Cherry Orchard, despite indications that some productions have satisfactorily resolved the most basic dilemma in the author’s favor.

A 1976 production, the cast of which included the young Meryl Streep (pictured above), “is not only a comedy, it is a comedy played as a tragic farce,” gushed Clive Barnes in The New York Times:

Because the players in this charade of decaying death are people rather than puppets you are touched, and because they are even clowns rather than people you are amused. When you are both amused and touched something very special happens to our hearts – they are uplifted to the giddy, bitter laughter of the gods.

Peter Marks, writing in 2002 about the only English-language film adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, neatly identifies the central challenge in adapting Chekhov: Characters’ “predicaments are often tragic and funny at the same time. In the wrong hands, the wry humor undercutting the sadness is lost, and all the tension melts away, leaving a stagnant puddle.”

Authorial intention, though it may loom large in the minds of some directors, clearly matters less when the author is no longer alive to be dragged red faced and shouting from the theater. An ideal Chekhov production today (and tomorrow) is, necessarily, a movement away from the original creation – from Russian into English (or another language), from parts written for specific actors in the Moscow Art Theater to sometimes radically new, contemporary incarnations, from the earliest naturalistically melancholy interpretations to “‘Alice in Wonderland’ absurdity”.

More adventurous adapators have ventured still further, exploring the wider circle of lives evoked by the play or those of the author himself and his family, such as Jovanka Bach’s Chekhov & Maria. In 2010, playwright Dan Rebellato described several such productions in The Guardian:

Helen Cooper’s portrait of the unhappy Mrs Vershinin, or Brian Friel, whose Afterplay imagines the meeting of Sonya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey from Three Sisters. Reza de Wet’s Three Sisters Two and Nic Ularu’s The Cherry Orchard Sequel place Chekhov’s characters in the tumult of the 1917 revolution. Other plays have wondered how Arkadina reacted to her son’s suicide and how the sisters would actually fare if they ever got to Moscow.

Rebellato himself penned Chekhov in Hell: “The first scene gives us the death of Chekhov; in the second, he is startled to wake from a 100-year coma and takes a bewildered tour of contemporary Britain, from lapdancing to reality TV, feng shui to Twitter.”

Image: Meryl Streep as the maid Dunyásha in the 1976 production of The Cherry Orchard at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

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