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A Russian director’s ‘Cherry Orchard’ shakes a theater to its roots

Dmitry Krymov stages a disruptive version of Chekhov’s masterpiece for Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater

Krista Apple and Justin Jain in director Dmitry Krymov's adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” for the Wilma Theater. (Johanna Austin/Wilma Theater)
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PHILADELPHIA — The offstage booms startle the characters of director Dmitry Krymov’s wildly digressive, fascinatingly anarchic reconception of “The Cherry Orchard.” The sound effects are nothing of the sort that Anton Chekhov’s script calls for, after the cherry trees of Madame Ranyevska’s beloved orchard have been consigned to the chopping block.

“What was that?” they ask each other, but anyone in the Wilma Theater audience who watches CNN knows what’s up. Even if Chekhov did not pinpoint the location of Ranyevska’s financially depleted estate, Krymov does, for a production infused with contemporary relevance: It’s identified here as Kharkov — Russian for Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, a city devastated in 2022 by Russian bombardment.

An audience member may find it impossible to hear the concussive sounds as anything other than tragic echoes of an actual war, as conjured by a highly regarded Russian director who has professed in recent interviews to have lost his country. Where might that sense of unraveling, of disorientation, be more aptly evident in a theater these days than in a Russian masterpiece repurposed as a tapestry coming apart at the seams?

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You may be gleaning by now that this is a “Cherry Orchard” that touches base only intermittently with the Chekhov tragicomedy about aristocrats and servants languishing in a country manor, as a cunning local speculator buys it out from under them. The times, Krymov and the Wilma seem to be saying: Do not cry out for another ritualistic bathing in refined Russian culture, or even in exposure to a purist’s illumination of Chekhov, one of theater’s greatest literary humanists. To find meaning on this evening, you have to check your preconceptions at the door. The engagement that Krymov and company seek is for all of us to puzzle out together what urgent role theater can perform at a chaotic moment such as this.

“So much going on in the world right now,” declares Lindsay Smiling, who breaks character as Ranyevska’s dilettante brother, Gayev, to make plain to us Krymov’s game plan. “Every day before rehearsals started, he told us about his friends in Ukraine, listening to Mozart to keep themselves from losing their minds.”

To perform Chekhov now, the director seems to be saying, is to invite in the world as we are experiencing it, day after day: brutal, paradoxical, unpredictable, terrifying. A world in which we watch children and cherry orchards being blasted asunder and wonder whether we, too, will lose our minds. As a result, this “Cherry Orchard” is disrupted by improvised asides and patent absurdities. A new off-the-wall character has been added by Krymov and his set design partner, Irina Kruzhilina: a towering, sentient train station destination board to which the actors turn for advice and that constantly spells out ironic commentary.

But the complicated world Krymov and his spirited, 11-person cast seek to conjure is not entirely a bleak one; theater can’t be an unending agony, after all. The story Chekhov devised is comprehensible, though familiarizing yourself with it beforehand would be a good thing to do. Also be ready for some silliness. As Smiling notes: “It’s important that we play with each other, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.”

So in Krymov’s “Cherry Orchard,” the servant Dunyasha (Brett Ashley Robinson) spills a bowl of cherries, turning the floor of the stage into a Marx Brothers-style slapstick sliding pond. A quartet of characters lines up downstage to relay the peculiar thoughts running through their heads, all the while eating sunflower seeds and defiantly spitting out the shells (sunflowers being the national flower of Ukraine). The plot even takes a breather as the actors team up for a game of volleyball: It’s the landlords vs. the “serfs” — or rather, after a character offers a political corrective, the “workers.”

This Russian-American collaboration comes across as a dislocating mash-up. Is it ingenious or a mess? The answer is yes. In the nature of such risky stage business, the playful interludes are hit or miss: Stunts are arranged to draw audience members into the play, which embroider the carnival atmosphere but feel a bit halfhearted. Some actors are better than others at conveying their characters’ interior lives amid all of the chaos; Suli Holum’s Carlotta, Matteo Scammell’s Yasha and Krista Apple’s Ranyevska being among the most successful.

We, it seems, are not exempt on this evening from yearning for a respite from disorder. The destination board proves to be a mesmerizing device: Our gaze shifts again and again over the heads of the actors to the messages it flashes. We want its guidance. The sound of the shuffling symbol cards is soothing, like the fluttering of birds’ wings. Each announcement is a godlike evanescence. But this god can no more deliver us from evil than Chekhov can.

The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov, adapted and directed by Dmitry Krymov. Set, Irina Kruzhilina and Krymov; costumes, Kruzhilina; lighting, Thom Weaver; sound, Daniel Ison. With Ross Beschler, Suli Holum, Campbell O’Hare, Sarah Gliko, Trevor W. Fayle, Matteo Scammell. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through May 1 at Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. 215-546-7824. wilmatheater.org.

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