Problems of Race, Class and Labor reign in The Cherry Orchard

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The Seagull Project has delivered on yet another challenging Chekhov masterpiece. After two critically acclaimed productions, The Seagull (2013) and The Three Sisters (2015), the ensemble has collaborated with ACTLab to mount a beautiful and carefully rendered production of The Cherry Orchard. The ensemble’s dedication to a rigorous (albeit lengthy) 18-month rehearsal process, complete with ample dramaturgical research for the actors and designers, has paid off in their newest offering. Their efforts, unlike perhaps any other theater in Seattle, shine through in delicious layers of character development, attention to race and class, and decadent staging, sound and production design.

The plot unfolds at a springtime gathering of old friends, relatives, servants and hangers-on at the ancestral estate owned by the once wealthy Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevaskaya (Julie Briskman). Ranevaskaya, her brother Gaev (Peter Crook), daughter Anya (Ayo Tushinde) and extended entourage are returning from Paris where Ranevaskaya has squandered most of the family’s vast fortune. Waiting to greet the returning ‘masters’ is Lopakhin (Brandon Simmons), a descendant of serfs turned millionaire businessman, lifelong butler Firs (Mark Jenkins) and Ranevaskaya’s adopted daughter Varya (Sydney Andrews). The estate, along with the all-important cherry orchard, is due to be auctioned off, because Ranevaskaya can’t pay the bills. Lopakhin, who longs to feel a part of this aristocratic family, and works tirelessly to distance himself from his peasant origins, offers a sound business plan for Ranevaskaya: transform the cherry orchard into small plots of land for summer homes to pay off the debts. While the future of the estate is in question, the flighty and idealistic Anya falls in love with Trofimov (Spencer Hamp), a budding revolutionary firebrand and perpetually failing university student. The minor characters – and yes, no matter what other reviewers have told you (Seattle Times), there are minor characters – orbit around these two dominant plot lines, to fill in Chekhov’s world of turn-of-the-20th-century Russia.   

The Cherry Orchard,  more than any other Chekhov play, centers on one concern: how a fading aristocracy faces the material, political and psychological struggles of modernity. More specifically, The Cherry Orchard deals with the changing boundaries between upper- and under- classes after the freedom of the serfs in 1861. This upended Russia’s feudal agricultural system, which relied  on the labor of slaves who were turned to serfs (unfree peasants), and fueled the economy of empire. The rise of a middle class, and the powder-keg geopolitical climate before the Russian Revolution of 1905, provide the primary contexts for The Cherry Orchard. The play is also chock-full of comedy – though Konstantin Stanislavski, the original director of the play and acting methods guru, dealt with it as a tragedy, and I tend to agree. You should arrive for a night of Chekhovian dramatic genius and weighty histories, but stay for the jokes. In particular, enjoy the bumbling “Mr. Disaster”, Yepikhodov (Alex Matthews), who kept our audience in stitches with his squeaky shoes and perfectly tongue-tied wooing of Dunyasha (Hannah Mootz).

It’s impossible to do this play without sensitivity towards its historical context. For example, Trofimov as a character reflects the anti-government sentiments of Russian academia of the time, which favored workers’ rights, individual liberty and radical anti-Tsarism. The academy helped spur on the active phase of the Russian Revolution of 1905, including the strike at the Putilov plant and St. Petersburg’s infamous Bloody Sunday, military mutinies and peasant unrest.

This brings me to what is perhaps the most inspired, and risky, innovation offered by the ensemble: its  desire to compare Russian serfdom with US plantation slavery. This is hinted at from the show’s stunning musical opening, in which the hidden ensemble sings the American lullaby, ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’, where a black nanny sings to her white master’s child about her own, neglected black child. The racialized, comparative exploration continues with two crucial episodes. First, a conversation between Trofimov and Anya vis-à-vis serf-owning in the cherry orchard. Second, Lopakhin’s reaction to his purchase of the estate and orchard. It should be noted that both Anya (Tushinde) and Lopakhin (Simmons) are mixed-race actors of black ancestry.

Anya and Trofimov’s conversation presents an interesting opportunity to manage issues of class, gender, and race simultaneously. As the scene is written, Trofimov poetically man-splains to Anya that her ancestors were all “serf-owners, they all owned living souls … to own human souls – can’t you see how this has transformed each and every one of us?” (Rocamora translation 243). Instead of Trofimov speaking these lines, in this production Anya takes them, and shows a  heightened consciousness about her family,  and the dark historical underbelly of the cherry orchard itself, whose cultivation depends on exploitation. This line swap gives Anya an uncanny awareness (as a woman of color) that the other (white) women in her family lack. This swap  also diffuses the sexist politics of Trofimov, as the educated man, leading the ignorant woman to her social and intellectual transformation. Ultimately, I’m not sure Anya is able to carry the weight of the speech, or that it even makes sense to switch the lines. Anya’s heightened awareness, found only in these co-opted words, contradicts her flighty, privileged perspective elsewhere in the play, that is indeed subjected to Trofimov’s mini-lectures on exploitation of labor and the need for liberty. The racial optics of this scene, however, are effective. Regardless of who speaks the soul-owning lines, the casting of Anya (as a woman of color) does the symbolic heavy lifting. Though perhaps a bit frustrating with Anya’s overall character arc in mind, the scene worked for me.

On the surface, this transnational comparison seems on point: emancipation of blacks enslaved in the US came at essentially the exact historical moment the serfs were freed. However, Russian serfs were deeply connected to the customs, nationality, and religious practices of Russia, where black American slaves were decidedly (perhaps necessarily) set apart. Since race was used to justify enslavement of blacks in the US and class was what kept the serf/noble paradigm in place in Russia, I’m not entirely sure  that a one-for-one correlation succeeds in this production. For example, Simmons as Lopakhin seemed to play vindictiveness rather than surprise or elation when announcing his having purchased the estate. His wild dancing, taunting and stomping run counter to the text and made his final scene, where he attempts to share a celebratory toast with the family and nearly proposes to Varya, more or less unplayable. His disconnection from the peasant class is, the original script suggests, motivated by a sense of camaraderie and longing to be considered a legitimate member of the upper class. Here, Simmons’s powerfully-delivered speech, highly effective on its own terms, seems instead the fruit of a calculated scheme to ‘stick it to the masters’ and honor his serf-born forefathers by buying the estate out from under the white Ranevaskaya. I commend the cast for making race a factor Anya and Lopakhin’s actions. These performance and casting decisions make for stimulating viewing and should help to foster critical debate. Although the text is a critique of class, not race, it’s arguably not worth nit-picking in our current American political climate, where questions of class and racial conflict are heavily intertwined, and equity demands center stage.  

These intersecting issues of race, class and labor themselves justify The Seagull Project’s 18-month rehearsal process! The ensemble proves that there is extraordinary value in being diligent students of theatrical and historical through lines. They also keep true to their credo that doing the exhausting work of building strong character relationships makes the heart of the show. Here, Briskman’s Ranevaskaya and Crook’s Gaev stand out. Perhaps the most striking moment of interpersonal connection comes as Gaev and Ranevaskaya stand ready to finally leave the estate for good. The emotional weight of Chekhov’s social critique of the aristocracy, and the tender love between two aging siblings, come crashing into one another. Crook and Briskman find  a special connection that is difficult to cultivate in a few short hours on stage. They convince the audience of a precious and complex familial history, and tell us stories from the past in a time and place we do not understand. These two characters may seem frivolous and passé, yet, Briskman and Crook evoke the audience’s empathy for their characters’ loss. I wanted to side with Lopakhin and Trofimov, intuitively, but found myself most compelled by Gaev and Ranevaskaya’s displacement, the end of both their lifestyle and their material legacy. The nostalgia bubble pops hard as the two embrace moments before the orchard is felled. This moment, to me, is pitch perfect.

The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s last play before his death, premiered in Moscow in 1904. At the end of the play when Trofimov and Anya leave for Moscow, the actors, and the audience, should feel certain that they are headed, as the rest of the country, towards the revolution. The play is about the necessary death of a social, political, and economic system that profits from the sustained disenfranchisement of a laboring class. Trofimov and Anya aren’t just courting in the orchard; they’re the seeds of the revolution. Lopakhin isn’t simply swelling his financial empire in purchasing the estate; he’s the democratizing landownership. Ranevaskaya and Gaev are mourning more than just the loss of their childhood home; they’re offering an elegy to the aristocracy.

The ensemble plays these depths in their production. Watch carefully, because even though Gaev is talking about a bookcase, Crook is pointing you towards aristocratic nostalgia writ large. While Lopakhin is dreaming of acceptance within the upper crust of society, Simmons is directing you to compare Russian serfdom and American slavery. When you see the show in its final weekend I implore you to dig into the sticky, rich historical tensions beneath the surface. And, perhaps most importantly, I encourage other companies in Seattle to follow The Seagull Project’s lead and make bold staging, textual and casting choices which embrace and attempt to meaningfully critique problems of race, class and labor.

 


The Seagull Project in Collaboration with ACTLab

Written by: Anton Chekhov, translated by Carol Rocamora

Directed by: John Langs

Dates: Jan 31-Feb 19

Venue: The Falls Theater at ACT

Review Lead: Steph Hankinson / Review Team: Emily George