All Russia is our orchard. — Anton Chekhov
At the end of The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s last and perhaps greatest play, the sound of axes can be heard rippling across the stage as the orchard of a great estate, emblematic of the past, is cut down in a tattoo of violent loss.
A world is dying with every blow of an axe, and what will take its place is solely a matter of speculation.
So it is that Dmitry Krymov, 67, whose Russian theater roots are long and deep, comes to be directing The Cherry Orchard at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia — previews begin April 12 with the premiere April 14 — in a time of momentous change wrought by leaders of his home country.
The production is an adaptation staged by Krymov and Wilma’s resident Hothouse Company of players.
“When an artist is doing anything, of course, you’re going to reflect the life that you’re living through right now — you’re doing it today,” Krymov said through a translator prior to rehearsal at the Wilma. “Your fingerprints that are current today will be on your work, right? Because you have to feel what’s happening, right?”
Krymov has been developing this Philadelphia production for about four years, he said, but when he left Moscow in February he fully expected to return after the end of the production’s Wilma run, May 1.
The invasion of Ukraine stopped him in his tracks.
On Feb. 28, four days after arriving in Philadelphia and four days since the invasion began, Krymov signed a petition with other prominent Russian cultural leaders denouncing the war.
“We don’t want a new war, we don’t want people to die,” wrote Krymov, along with the Bolshoi Theatre’s general director Vladimir Urin, prominent conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov, and several other high-profile artists. “We call on everyone on whom it depends, all sides of the conflict, to stop the armed action, and to sit at the table for negotiations. We call for the preservation of the highest value — human life.”
At this point, Krymov has not been barred from returning to Moscow for his no doubt unwelcome political remarks, but he said he has no desire to go back under the present circumstances.
Not only has the war become more brutal, but the government has become increasingly intolerant, a powerful echo of the Soviet days of samizdat where writers achieved freedom by not publishing. Instead, works circulated in typescript from desk drawer to desk drawer.
Cherry Orchard is not a new anti-Russian screed but a classic of the literature, although Krymov has rethought the play, creating a new Cherry Orchard, where a viewer will find a large train flipboard, a volleyball match, and other things that Chekhov may or may not have recognized.
The Russian invasion is most perceptible in the pervasive sense of loss that Krymov evokes in this production. Something is definitely dying here.
“I’m not doing political theater,” Krymov said. “The theater that I’m doing, it has to be clear and it has to be transparent and people need to understand where I’m coming from and we need to talk about things from the stage.”
Right now, that dialog is next to impossible, the air is being sucked out of Russian cultural life, and suffocation is looming.
“The theater that I like, the style that I prefer to use in my productions, that I’m not bored with, it is a game that I play with the authors,” he said. “I invite classical authors, in this case, Chekhov, to play my game. I ask for his forgiveness that I’m not using his concrete texts that often. I’m using the ideas but not the text itself. Usually the text is so great and the authors are so generous that I don’t feel that they’re upset with me.
“They probably think, ‘Well if the dude wants to play with my text, let him play. Somebody else will be more serious and do the whole thing the way I wrote it.’”
Recent years have proven increasingly difficult to maneuver for artists in Russia. Initially, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the atmosphere for writers and artists was redolent with freedom, Krymov said, and “for a very short period of time it was wonderful country.”
Those days now seem far in the past. Even the antiwar sentiment expressed just a month ago is receding.
“I see everything that’s happening in Russia, everything that’s happening in the theaters in Russia right now,” he said. “Today I read the news. Many of the people who signed the letter with me on the first day of the war, against the war, now those people who are in charge of the theater, every one of them willingly will put on the shows in their theaters. And they gave money to the families of the soldiers that were killed in Ukraine. They did not give the money to the Ukrainian refugees, 4.5 million people so far. They are giving money to Russian soldiers who all over the world people look at with disgust, not understanding how these young people, these young kids can do what they’re doing in Ukraine.”
This is a culture fostered by political leaders sucking the air out of the country’s intellectual and critical life.
“This is the sound of the axe against the cherry orchard,” said Krymov. “They are chopping down the cherry trees right in front of their eyes. This is the end.”
Through May 1 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Phila. 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org. Masks and vaccination proof required.