Photo: Stephanie Lee, courtesy BAM

In the Russian pantheon of writers, Anton Chekhov is the wily one. He embraced the themes of suffering as wholeheartedly as good Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but he also infused that misery with a good amount of humor and farce. Think of him as the Russian Molière.

Most American productions treat Chekhov as the Serious Russian they assume he is, and certainly they're not alone in doing so: the famously intense director Stanislavski insisted on directing the first iteration of The Cherry Orchard as a tragedy, despite Chekhov’s explicit instructions. The truth of it is somewhere in between, much like Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.

This balance is one of the hardest parts of adapting any Chekhov work, and The Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s recent production at BAM, on through February 27, succeeds at walking that line. They have preserved the madhouse quality of Chekhov’s last play while also weighting the terrible sadness of both losing one’s past and being consumed by it.

A reviewer could overshoot her maximum word count just introducing the twelve (!) characters that traipse in and out of the proceedings, but suffice it to say that the story primarily tracks Lyuba Ranevskaya, the owner of a now-impecunious manse and the titular cherry orchard. The estate is to be sold off at auction, and she has returned from Paris to join her family and attempt to save things—attempt being the operative word. Lyuba (played by the gifted Ksenia Rappoport) alternates between hysteria and resignation, so unaware of practicalities that she hands over all her loose money to an intruding tramp in Act II. (Later, she throws a party on the day of the auction, and her elder daughter wonders bitterly how they are to pay the musicians.)

Lyuba is opposed by Ermolai Lopakhin (a delightfully energetic Danila Kozlovskiy), a former serf who worked in the house when he was young, before Alexander II’s emancipation. He is now wealthy and a master of the practicalities that so evade her. He urges her to chop down the cherry orchard, a symbol of utter frivolity, in order to divide the land up for cottages that she can rent for income. She and her brother, Gaev (Sergei Vlasov), find this suggestion unimaginable. She and the other faded nobility loaf around the decrepit estate, draped with cloth for the sale, unable to move forward.

I had never had the pleasure of seeing The Cherry Orchard staged. This production is delivered entirely in Russian, with English subtitles. The director, Lev Dodin, employs the entire Harvey Theater as the sprawling estate, including three exits on the stage itself and two behind the orchestra seating, which are liberally used throughout the show. The lighting design is inexplicably bright—as if the house lights were up—at seemingly random places throughout the play. Your correspondent spent several precious minutes of character introduction trying to suss it out. The only thing I could figure was it was for the safety of the actors due to the comprehensive staging. Some characters wisp in and out of doors for a throwaway line, others deliver monologues from the stairs, practically on top of the audience members. Some shout things from behind the orchestra as they walk in. This adds to the manic effect—who are these people? How do they even know each other?—but can occasionally be a distraction, especially if an actor is lolling about next to your seat while dialogue is happening on the main stage.

As for how the characters know each other, they themselves are often unsure—Lyuba keeps asking after people’s names in what is played as a wink toward the audience, although the original intent was likely to highlight her ditziness, not ours. She’s often a repository of meta-dialogue, opining at one point, “You shouldn’t be going to plays anyway. You should take a look at your own life more often. What grey lives you lead. What a lot of unnecessary talk you spout.”

Certainly Chekhov’s works are not the most accessible, and they stubbornly refuse to be adapted to modern times. (Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, this play is not.) Written in 1904 and taking place contemporaneously, Chekhov’s works are strongly historical, caught in the liminal space between the refined tsarist era and the Communist revolution inexorably coming down the pike. The decline of the nobility traces from 1860 to about 1905, the time of the first Russian Revolution.

Who knows exactly how prescient Chekhov was of that event, but the context tips the events of the play toward the tragic more than the comic. Suddenly, Ermolai’s post-intermission purchase of the estate becomes less of a victory over his former masters than a dramatic irony: in a few years, there won’t be much landowning by private citizens to be had, freed serf or not. His vision for the land for his own profit is a farce unto itself. There are two guns in this play, but in a subversion of Chekhov’s famous gun trope, they do not go off. But they certainly will in 1905, and in 1917.

Because of this intractable historic aspect of the work, Mr. Dodin’s attempts to render the play in some unrooted time period fall flata Ermolai's rendition of “My Way” (yes, that would be Frank Sinatra's “My Way”) in English, no less, is a bizarre choice. It is clearly meant to complement the frenzied quality of Ermolai's triumphant monologue, but the anachronism is meaningless.

The particular and ornery Chekhov would not be pleased to see this and other liberties taken with his material, such as the invention of dialogue around the demonstration of a home video of the cherry orchard. Given that the first Russian film wasn’t released until 1908, and certainly personal films were not able to be made, this addition is also jarring.

Another change Mr. Dodin makes is to take one of the elderly manservant’s lines from the very final speech of the play and move it to the opening. This choice actually works to bookend the beginning and ending with the tragicomic figure of Fiers, the eternal servant who truly has no place in the future. He faces a literal cherrywood wall at the end, revealed behind the projector screen, a dreamlike rendering of the lack of future he holds in the new world. Not just applicable to him, this wall represents a hard stop to many of the characters’ forward narratives. Lyuba returns to her lover in Paris, the idealistic student Petya to his unusable studies, and Ermolai to a house mired in memories of his past spent in servitude. And yet the revolution is coming.