Even Actors’ Shakespeare Project does not live by the Bard alone. Over its past nine seasons, the company has ventured as far afield as Euripides’ “Medea,” John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi,” and Will Eno’s “Middletown.” Now it’s taking on Chekhov with a production of “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by Melia Bensussen.
Chekhov’s work seems never out of favor, but these days he seems particularly popular in Boston. Apollinaire Theatre Company opened “Uncle Vanya” in December 2011; last summer Harbor Stage presented “The Seagull” in Wellfleet and then took it to Boston in September. Later this month, Mikhail Baryshnikov will bring “Man in a Case,” an adaptation of two Chekhov short stories, to the Cutler Majestic Theatre, and then next month, the Huntington Theatre Company will open its production of “The Seagull,” with Kate Burton, who starred as Ranevskaya in the Huntington’s “Cherry Orchard” in 2007.
Bensussen has her own idea as to why a writer who’s so closely associated with the 19th century remains so popular in the 21st. “What amazes me about ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ ” she says, “is how honestly existential it is. It seems very bold to me in its acceptance of mortality, and the incomprehensible quality of our lives. We think of Chekhov as 19th century, but this play is his last, it’s 1904, and it really looks ahead to the 20th century and the theater that’s to come. It reminds me of Samuel Beckett as much as it does anything in the 19th century.”
One thing that will bring this “Cherry Orchard” into the 21st century is the audience’s proximity to the actors. Actors’ Shakespeare Project is presenting the play not on a proscenium stage but inside Founder’s Hall at Pine Manor College’s Dane Estate in Chestnut Hill. “We saw a couple of spots,” says Bensussen, “and then when we all walked into this room at Pine Manor, it had such a feel of lost history and being isolated and of its own time and place somehow, and its architecture seemed to lend itself to the Chekhovian landscape. This is one big room. The characters are going to be right by you, on floor level.”
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project production will feature Marya Lowry as Madame Ranevskaya, Steven Barkhimer as Lopakhin, Richard Snee as Gaev, Lydia Barnett-Mulligan as Anya, Marianna Bassham as Varya, and Sarah Newhouse as Charlotta.
Chekhov insisted that “The Cherry Orchard” was a comedy, even a farce. Konstantin Stanislavsky’s early productions at the Moscow Art Theatre treated it as a tragedy, with the impoverished aristocrats — Ranevskaya, her daughters Anya and Varya, and her brother Gaev — as the victims of Lopakhin, the businessman who buys their estate so he can raze it and build summer cottages. Soviet productions posited Lopakhin and the student dreamer Trofimov as the play’s heroes, the forerunners of a bright progressive future.
So is it a comedy? Bensussen calls it “a bit of a roller coaster emotionally. There are aspects that are straight farce and comedic, and then you get sucker-punched by life and you’ve got to come out from that.”
Lowry says, “That’s for the audience to decide. There are relationships in the play that are tender and sweet and relationships that are kind of silly, and moments that are ridiculous and moments that are heartfelt, and hopefully we will play all those notes.”
This is just Lowry’s second outing in a Chekhov play; the first, she says, was a production in the mid-1990s with graduate students at Brandeis, where she teaches. The play was “The Cherry Orchard,” and she had the same role then that she does in this production, as Ranevskaya.
“I’ve always loved this play,” she says, “and I’ve always wanted to do it again. I’ve always loved Russian literature and Russian movies and Russian poets, and I’ve always been attracted by the way the Russian sensibility very quickly goes from high to low, from ecstatic to sad. I’m attracted to those shifts, and I would say I’m more boldly looking for those in this production. I think they’re there — I mean, Chekhov writes them. The question is where to find them and how to find them.”
In articulating her concept of Ranevskaya, Lowry cites a line from Act 3, when the aristocrats throw a party, complete with Jewish orchestra, even as their estate is being auctioned off. Ranevskaya says, “I can’t go to my room. I’m frightened of the silence. I’m afraid of being alone.”
“That is a truth that runs through her entire life,” Lowry explains. “She needs to keep the joy going, she needs to keep fun going, she needs to keep life happening all around her. Because if we’re alone too much, we think about the darker sides of our life, and it’s really important for her to not go there.”
Ranevskaya has often taken center stage in “The Cherry Orchard,” in part, perhaps, because for the premiere, Stanislavsky cast Chekhov’s wife, Olga Knipper, in the role. (Chekhov had it in mind that Knipper would play the German governess, Charlotta.) But Bensussen and Lowry both stress that the play isn’t about just one character. “I really think it’s about the company,” says Bensussen. “Because of how Stanislavsky chose to cast it, which was against Chekhov’s wishes, certain characters became more important than Chekhov meant them to be. But I think it’s about a company of characters who are all pieces of the story, and without any one of them, you just don’t get the story.”
And Lowry concludes, “We’re trying to be truthful to the story Chekhov wrote. We’re trying to let this play speak. I think there are some people who just won’t get Ranevskaya and will find her to be ridiculous. But for me the beautiful thing about Chekhov is that he has such compassion for all of us.”