Though Anton Chekhov’s classic play “The Cherry Orchard” has been interpreted as both a tragedy and a comedy, UCLA theater graduate students bring out the lighter side of Russian history.
Performances of this period piece and comedy open Friday at 8 p.m. and run through March 12 in Macgowan Little Theater.
“This play (deals with) a family coming back to their palatial estate and cherry orchard at a time in the history of Russia where the serfs have been freed, so there is no one to run the cherry orchard, nor can the family afford its upkeep,” said second-year graduate student in fine arts Adam Mondschein, who plays the character Pischick.
According to Mondschein, Mel Shapiro, “The Cherry Orchard” director and theater professor, knows how to tell a story, finding the positive elements of the play even in its most hopeless moments.
Shapiro earned a Tony Award for “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in addition to various other achievements for his work in directing on Broadway.
“We have spent almost two months really finding the essence of each moment. (Shapiro) will direct it one day and find the comedy in a scene and then the next day he will find the sadness in a scene ““ he will do that for every single scene so that eventually the play has a lot of different colors,” said second-year graduate student in fine arts Bryan Chesters, who plays Leonid Gaev, Madame Ranevskaya’s brother.
Though the play focuses on a family parting with the memories of their past, Shapiro said he directs “The Cherry Orchard” as a comedy and pairs every sad moment with a funny one.
“The characters all ride a roller coaster careening between what’s sad and what’s extremely funny, like in life,” Shapiro said.
In the play, landowner Madame Ranevskaya must face the decision of selling her ancestral estate’s cherry orchard to be cut down to provide land for a housing development. Though Madame Ranevskaya needs the money, she struggles with her nostalgic desire to keep the cherry orchard and hold on to the past, according to Mondschein.
“Mel really got us to find the personalization in our own life when we saw something that was so beautiful that you would be moved to tears if it were taken away from you,” Chesters said.
Since “The Cherry Orchard” deals with the transition from serfdom to the rise of the middle class, the actors had to research related events in Russian life in 1904 to create the mindset of the characters and understand their concerns. A short film of the actors reading Chekhov’s letters will be presented before the onstage performance. According to Mondschein, Shapiro wants to bring the audience into the world of the play through the film.
“When the atmosphere is open and fun, it creates something conducive to creativity when people are having fun and are happy.
… It creates an environment where we can explore, have fun, and really create moments where characters are listening and talking to each other,” Mondschein said.
According to Shapiro, Chekhov understood the dualistic nature of man and experience, so even though the cherry orchard represents a world of luxury and leisure that cannot last, it also represents something old giving way to something new.
“And that all these memories that we have … even though they can be sad ones, or happy ones, or whatever, (they are) the celebration of what it means to be alive,” Mondschein said.