The last of the great Chekhovian canon, The Cherry Orchard examines the lives of the aristocratic Russian landowner Ranevskaya and her family at the turn of the 20th century. Ranevskaya returns to her family estate only to find that it, like so much of the aristocracy, is under attack. In a world that is changing, what will Ranevskaya do to save the estate? How will she face the changing world around her?
On Sept. 13, I attended a run-through of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Michael Lugering, professor of acting and interim chair of the theatre department at UNLV. At the end of rehearsal, we spoke about some highlights of the show.
Before we begin, I'd like to thank Michael for taking the time out of his intense schedule to respond to these question, and I want to invite the audience to come see the Nevada Conservatory Theatre show live Oct. 14-16 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays in the Judy Bayley Theatre.
For ticketing information, visit the Nevada Conservatory Theatre website.
Stebos: The Cherry Orchard is one of Chekhov’s timeless pieces – why did you choose to stage it today, here in Vegas? What is your main concept for the play?
Lugering: A good simple question, with a complicated answer. The Cherry Orchard is a Russian play. We chose this play before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After this disturbing event, there was naturally a great deal of discussion about why this play now.
I felt strongly that the themes of this play set in the early 20th century mirror those of today. Russia was in a period of great transition. In 1861, the Czar had freed the serfs, the power of the aristocracy was declining, the wealth inequalities created by the imperial system were being widely criticized, and a call for human rights and social justice rumbled in the ranks of the working class. All this social unrest and change ultimately led to the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Though in a decidedly different context, America is struggling with similar issues, social unrest, racism, wealth inequality, internal strife — just as in Russia, we sense that our culture is struggling with a transition to what we hope is a more perfect union.
Stebos: You chose Andrew Upton’s adaptation of the play (based on a literal translation from the Russian by Charlotte Pyke). What do you think this adaptation contributes to the play’s potential and the spectators’ connection with it?
Lugering: Now this is a hard question. I am very interested in translations, and wish I knew more about them. There is room for several dissertations on this topic. I tend to choose translations intuitively: How do the words lift-up off the page and come to life? Can this language become embodied, embedded, and enacted? This is what matters most to me. It’s a feeling thing. I love Andrew Upton’s translation. It is fresh, fast-paced, dynamic, comic and tragic, all at the same time.
Stebos: The first day of rehearsals, you distributed a list of contrasting polarities that are at work in the play. Which of these do you view as more relevant, now that you’ve had some time to see them realized in practice?
Lugering: All the polarities are encapsuled in the structure of past, present, and future. The destruction of the cherry orchard and the promised new construction of holiday houses, where the orchard once stood, is a powerful symbol of change through growth, stagnation, and rebirth. This is the most powerful theme of the play. Every character holds a unique symbolic relationship with the cherry orchard — for some its plight represents liberation and freedom, for others authoritarianism and oppression, and for others a nostalgic, romantic decay from a time that was and never will be again.
Stebos: Chekhov was keen on his plays remaining comedic, despite directorial choices that might bog down the text by making them too serious. How are the performers, in your opinion, balancing these two tendencies that remain interwoven in a tragicomedy like The Cherry Orchard?
Lugering: Chekhov only wrote four major plays. He has been largely misunderstood in his own lifetime and today, perhaps nowhere more than in America.
Chekhov met the American Method like a two-seater kamikaze. The application of the Group Theatre technique left us with a Chekovian style that was riddled with pauses, entangling subtext, a lack of action, and etherizing dynamics. I reject this approach. It is often noted that actors and directors love Chekhov, but audiences hate it. True enough.
Recently, we have begun to see decidedly vibrant and dynamic productions of Chekhov that are sardonically funny and touchingly tragic, played with vigor and verve. Chekhov strongly disapproved of the interpretation of his work in his own day, accusing [actor and acting coach Konstantin] Stanislavski of turning his comedies into tragedies and ruining his plays. He may still be complaining from the grave.
Stebos: In collaboration with the set designer, Dana Moran Williams, you are working with a highly flexible space. How did this work out with the actors and for you?
Lugering: I love abstraction. I feel strongly that this realistic play with deep symbolic and metaphysical roots would be stifled by the confines of a naively realistic set design. The play has scope, depth, and an expansiveness that knocks down walls. We don’t need the kitchen sink. I think Professor Williams’s brilliant design captures the meta-physical aspects of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard most deftly.
Stebos: One of the highlights of the show is that it put together five members of the faculty in various capacities such as director, designer, performers, and movement director. Was this just a happy convergence due to the characters needed by the play or were there other factors?
Lugering: My favorite question. The NCT is committed to creating a professional environment where students, faculty, and professional guest artists come together to create challenging theatre of the highest quality. I am so proud of everyone who works to make the NCT possible.
When we work together — faculty, students, and guest artists — we build a community and a culture that enriches and sustains the art of playmaking.
Professor Phil Hubbard and I are celebrating our sixth show together and have had a rewarding two-decade collaboration.
Professor Kymberly Mellen and I unite again after our Covid collaboration on [the streaming play] bobrauschenbergamerica. It is a pleasure to have professor Moran Williams as our scenic designer. In this role, he has been an anchor and a leader that provides clarity, cohesiveness, and continuity.
Finally, professor Sean Boyd, our fight director and newest performance faculty member, who graduated from UNLV almost two decades ago, brings his considerable experience and expertise to the table. This production of The Cherry Orchard symbolizes all the aspects and aspirations that make the NCT a unique and special conservatory theatre.
Stebos: It’s still early in the process, but what do you think is the greatest challenge of this play? What is the main achievement in your collective work?
Lugering: This is quite simple. To keep it moving — with specificity and dynamic intensities.
The main goal is always to tell a story that illuminates the human condition.