The Cherry Orchard

Adapting Chekhov

Posted on: October 17th, 2016 by Roundabout


What do Anton Chekhov, Jerry Seinfeld, and Stephen Karam have in common?

Karam himself explained the connection in a 2012 conversation at the University of Scranton.

“I think I discovered Chekhov, what he does...almost gave me permission to be myself. He tells stories that are quite beautiful in structure but seem to go nowhere—he’s almost like Seinfeld, his plays seem to be about nothing.”

But the idea that Chekhov’s plays are about nothing is misleading, as Karam goes on to explain.

Stephen Karam and Anton Chekhov

Stephen Karam and Anton Chekhov

“You spend an evening with these cast of characters where not so much happens but you feel like somehow every facet of humanity has been touched upon. There’s an epicness to something that seems so ordinary and so small.”

Like Chekhov, Karam, author of The Humans, Sons of the Prophet, and Speech and Debate, uses “ordinary and small” moments to allow big emotional truths to surface. In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov uses the impending loss of a family home to explore major changes in the Russian class system and our ability to endure through change. In The Humans, Karam uses a quotidian family Thanksgiving to explore the “black pit of dread and malaise” in America in the years since 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008, and our relationship to fear.

Karam and Chekhov both weave comic and tragic moments into their plays and build realistic worlds with little plot. While modern American audiences are familiar with this approach, it was so revolutionary in Chekhov’s day that an entirely new approach to acting and directing was required. In an era when stories and plays were emotionally melodramatic and featured important, powerful figures, Chekhov wrote about ordinary people. As his contemporary and fellow writer Leo Tolstoy wrote to Chekhov, “And where does one get with your heros? From the privy to the sofa and from the sofa back to the privy?” Chekhov’s work paved the way for what might be referred to as modern American naturalism.

The Company of The Humans

The Company of The Humans (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Karam exemplifies a new generation of naturalist playwrights, including Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, John, The Flick), Amy Herzog (4000 Miles, The Great God Pan, Bellville), and Steven Levenson (The Language of Trees, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, and Dear Evan Hansen) whose appeal is evident in how often their works are produced in regional theatres across the country. This group, along with Richard Nelson (The Apple Family plays), create compelling stories that seem to reflect ordinary 21st century life yet invite audiences to see the whole of society more clearly.

Consider the parallels between Karam and Chekhov in these quotes.

The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood’s 2015 review of The Humans

“...the play is rackingly funny even as it pummels the heart and scares the bejesus out of you … The whole hailstorm of human grief is pummeling them even at Thanksgiving, and yet they still make bad jokes, forgive betrayals and retreat into pettiness, overdrink and regret it, count calories and fail to, are piteous and angry and as overflowing with love for their failed little pod as Karam evidently is with ours.”

The New York Times critic Alexis Soloski reviewing a production of The Cherry Orchard at BAM in 2015

“Nothing happens in the plays of Anton Chekhov. But everything happens, too. People complain about restaurants, sing comic songs, make speeches in praise of bookcases even as they’re loving and losing and dying.”

Chekhov subtitled The Cherry Orchard “a comedy,” possibly because, while tragedy occurs in the play, at the end the characters move forward into the future. The same argument could be made for both Sons of the Prophet and The Humans: nothing is perfect, homes may be lost, but the characters move forward into the uncertain future.


The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage

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Stephen Karam on Adapting THE CHERRY ORCHARD

Posted on: October 14th, 2016 by Stephen Karam


The Cherry Orchard is timeless.

The play needs no gratuitous updating to remain relevant or accessible to American audiences in 2016, so my goal was clear: to create a version faithful to Chekhov's original; a version that attempts to land the play in modern American ears the way it landed in Russian ears in 1904.

I worked from a literal translation meticulously prepared by Allison Horsley for Roundabout Theatre Company's production. A literal translation provides, predictably, a literal word-for-word translation of Chekhov's original text. Allison's knowledge of Russian culture and her access to Russian scholars was invaluable and gave me access to the sound of the original text in addition to its precise punctuation, rhythms, colloquialisms, etc.

The literal translation revealed some surprises, most notably that — in addition to the play's well-known lyrical passages — Chekhov often composes elliptical passages of dialogue that are wonderfully colloquial. Many of these strange passages are often smoothed over in translations; I tried to honor them. I worked closely with the literal translation to find an unfussy American vernacular to mirror Chekhov's phrasing and language, to closely match his conversational and poetic turns. Beyond that, I had no desire to make the play more "American." In other words, the patronymics are in place, a samovar is still a samovar, a ruble is still a ruble.

Perhaps the most contemporary aspect of the production is not the language, but the fact that our company is diverse. Colorblind casting is now commonplace when it comes to Shakespeare, but Chekhov is still predominantly performed with all-white casts. This is not to say that the discussions surrounding color-conscious versus colorblind casting in classic works are not complex and multilayered, but I do worry that those complexities often cause us to shut down and avoid the conversations entirely. In previews, I've overheard audience members question whether diversity in the work of a Russian writer of such a specific time period disrupts the "authenticity" of the work (perils of playwrights using the bathroom at intermission); to those people I would ask: If you are doing a Russian play in English with actors who are not Russian — are you really preserving a more authentic Russian experience by only casting white Americans?

Like all great works of art, The Cherry Orchard feels modern because of its uncanny ability to hold up a mirror to the way we live now. The story of a Russian family in harsh denial of the change that is knocking on their door is almost comically prophetic at a time when a major American political party is fetishizing our past, feverishly looking back in order to "make America great again." History teaches us that change is inevitable, that the world only spins "forward!" (as Trofimov — and Tony Kushner — might tell us), but that such change comes at a cost; it can be gut-wrenching to face. When Lopakhin utters, "Oh, if only we could move faster through this next part...if only there was some way our awkward, sad lives could change faster...," I'm overwhelmed. Chekhov seems to be reaching across time to help us make sense of our current headlines and ourselves.
Although I started with a clear-eyed objective, the gray area every adapter runs into is perhaps best — or at least most amusingly — embodied by the challenges one faces translating the final word of The Cherry Orchard. No two adapters seem to agree. This is partially because the word, uttered by the old servant, Firs, is nedotyopa, which was not even a Russian word when Chekhov first used it. According to Laurence Senelick, the Chekhovian King of Footnotes: "[Nedotyopa]…was Ukrainian for an incompetent, a mental defective. Chekhov may have remembered hearing it in his childhood; it does not appear in Russian dictionaries until 1938, and then Chekhov is cited as the source."

As such, most adapters focus on mimicking the word's rhythm and sound, others pursue a more etymological route, exploiting potential root-word meanings hidden in the Ukranian slang. Some recent results:

silly young cuckoo
silly old nothing
silly galoot
young flibbertigibbet
half-baked bungler
you old fool
you pathetic old fool

After much trial and error, and after listening to a native Russian speaker ponder the subtle shadings of meaning of the word in comparison to some of my initial options (options which elicited: "too harsh," "too silly-sounding," "not silly enough," etc.) — and further emboldened by the fact that the word wasn't even formally adopted by Russian culture when Chekhov first used it — I am using the original. I grew too attached to its sound. The entire play belongs to Chekhov, of course, but still, I'm glad the last word is his.


This article was originally published by Theatremania.

The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, The Cherry Orchard

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The-Cherry-Orchard_300x300On September 15, 2016, The Cherry Orchard will begin performances at the American Airlines Theatre as part of Roundabout’s 50th Anniversary season.

It’s been more than a decade since Roundabout tackled one of the great works of Anton Chekhov, a writer whose work is notoriously tricky. Even Chekhov himself was rarely happy with productions of his plays. He nearly left the field of playwriting entirely when his first major piece, The Seagull, was met with a poor reception back in 1896. Chekhov even wrote to a friend, “Stop the printing of the plays…I shall never either write plays or have them acted.” Thankfully for the future of modern theatre, everything changed two years later, when the Moscow Art Theatre put up a new production of The Seagull that became widely acclaimed. So what happened in those intervening years to bring about such a different reaction to the exact same play?

The answer lies not in the play itself but in how it was being performed. Chekhov was one of early naturalist writers, steering away from plot-driven narratives and clear-cut heroes and villains. Instead, in an attempt to reflect the kinds of speech and movement found in everyday life, he focused on a wide swath of characters, each of them deeply complex. He placed them in everyday locations. And it was from the subtleties of the gently shifting relationships among these characters that plot slowly emerged. The Moscow Art Theatre, under the leadership of Constantin Stanislavski, embraced this new style of writing with a new style of acting, one that was revolutionary for its time but has since become the norm on our stages today. Stanislavski encouraged the playing of subtext, of examining not just what is happening on the line itself, but in the pauses between lines or single words, all of which could have deep meaning. (Granted, Chekhov was such a perfectionist that even Stanislavski couldn’t always please him – Anton complained that there was far too much crying in his friend’s production of The Cherry Orchard.)

It’s amazing to think that what we now see on our stages every day was so shocking and new in Chekhov’s time. Even the idea of putting lower class characters in a play and developing them into fully realized people was seen as revolutionary. The idea that audiences would want to watch those less fortunate than themselves or be asked to think about social change was unheard of. Chekhov was ahead of his time, certainly, but his legacy has had incredible impact.

While many writers have been influenced by Chekhov’s bold leap into subtlety, I think it’s fair to say that one of his truest heirs is Stephen Karam, which is why I asked Stephen to write the new version of The Cherry Orchard that you’ll be seeing. As he demonstrated so beautifully in his plays Speech & Debate, Sons of the Prophet, and the Tony-winning The Humans, Stephen has a particular ability to create complicated characters who move forward through life not through one dramatic act but through a series of subtle changes. There’s something about the quiet suffering and natural humor of his work that makes Stephen an utterly perfect fit for translating Chekhov. Without any kind of radical modernization, he has been able to bring The Cherry Orchard to life in a way that feels true to Chekhov’s 1904 original and yet exactly right for a 21st Century America.

This combining of the classic and the new is precisely what I love to do at Roundabout, and I think you will find this Cherry Orchard, with a superb cast under the direction of Simon Godwin, to be a wonderful example of naturalism at its best. As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts, so please continue to email me throughout this 50th Anniversary season at I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!


Todd Haimes
Artistic Director

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, The Cherry Orchard