Sean Mathias and Martin Sherman on the Mark Taper Forum's new production of The Cherry Orchard, starring Annette Bening and Alfred Molina.
At the start of the play, Madame Ranyevskaya (Bening) -- the matriarch of an aristocratic Russian family, who has been living in France for the past five years -- returns to her country estate, now on the verge of bankruptcy. As it turns out, the unlikely savior of the family fortunes is Lophakin (Molina), a self-made businessman and the son of a peasant family that once served on the estate, who wants to buy the property and build homes on it. "Chekhov is fascinated by the breakdown of society, the breakdown of values and mores," Mathias observes. "He could sense there was change coming."
The changes that reverberate through The Cherry Orchard are a foretaste of the revolution that was to transform Russia in the early 20th century. The playwright died in July 1904, just six months after the play premiered at the Moscow Arts Theater, but Mathias points out that he was very much ahead of his time. "He was always concerned about the future of society and he worked hard for better hospitals, better roads, and better education," says the director, adding that Chekhov was also modern in his style of writing: "His plays are not plotted out the way Ibsen's plays are; he observes life in an impressionistic way."The Mark Taper Forum production is a dream come true for Mathias, who has always wanted to tackle this Chekhov classic, having previously directed the playwright's Uncle Vanya at the British National Theatre. He is also realizing a long-cherished wish to work with Bening. "Annette and I have discussed various projects off and on for the past 10 years, but we never landed on anything until now," he says. "I think every characteristic that Annette has as an actress is just right for this role." For example, he explains, Bening exudes glamour and class. "Annette now belongs to, or lives within, a certain Hollywood elite in Los Angeles. She's very passionate about life and politics, and she wears a number of hats as actress, wife [to Warren Beatty], mother, and political activist. I'm not saying that Ranyevskaya is all that, but I think she has the same vivacity and drive."
Another key element of the production for Mathias was being able to work from a new adaptation of the century-old Russian language play. He stipulated that it be written in American English by an American playwright. "This production is being done by mostly American actors and the idiom has got to work for their tones, dialects and inflections," he says. His choice was his old friend, Martin Sherman, "Martin has done a very balanced job on this play," says Mathias. "There is a lot of humor in the characters -- a lot of irony, sarcasm, and self-deprecation -- and I didn't want to lose that. There is nothing glaring or out of period, but he has made it very speakable."
Sherman was a logical choice for Mathias, since their shared history spans almost three decades. "I was one of the first people to read his play Bent in 1978, before it was even produced," recalls Mathias. (He was then partnered with Sir Ian McKellen, who played the lead in the premiere production of the play at London's Royal Court Theatre). Mathias went on to direct the 1996 movie version, starring McKellen (as Uncle Freddy), Clive Owen, and Lothaire Bluteau (who is playing Gaev in The Cherry Orchard).Sherman asked the Taper to provide him with a translation by someone other than an academic or a theater professional. "I wanted to work from something that was absolutely literal and not have any agendas," he explains. "And I didn't want somebody doing my work for me or trying to join the dots. Because, you know, a line in Chekhov can mean so many different things, and the emotions change every two lines. You have to find a language that's not completely contemporary -- obviously, you can't use modern slang -- but, at the same time, you can't use turn-of -the 20th-century language, because that would be too archaic. So I tried to remember what people spoke like 50 years ago, when I was a kid. I thought that would be far enough away from both sides."
His admiration for the playwright is unbounded. "I think Chekhov is the greatest human being who ever wrote plays," Sherman states. (Shakespeare doesn't count for Sherman, since he considers the Bard to be a God.) "He literally doesn't put a foot wrong. But you have to make sure that, in English, [the dialogue] has room to breathe so that the actors can play the subtext and are not trapped by something that becomes stodgy." Sherman feels some kinship to the master, in part because the New Jersey-born playwright's grandparents came from the Ukraine. "The Russian temperament is something that feels quite natural to me," he says. "And I think we are a good match because, in my own plays, my characters switch emotions constantly. So I'm very comfortable with that."
Like Sherman, Mathias is able to relate to Chekhov's play on a personal level. For the past 10 years, he has lived in Cape Town, South Africa, where society has gone through radical change since the dismantling of Apartheid. In The Cherry Orchard, the aristocratic family cannot deal with the reality that the former peasant Lophakin will become the new master of the estate. "It's shocking to them that somebody whose family would not have been allowed past the kitchen door now owns the cherry orchard," Mathias remarks. "Chekhov is very political about this. It's very similar to the emancipation of South Africa; people who were not allowed to walk on certain streets and go to certain areas and theaters and restaurants are now running the country."