Russian major directs Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard

23 May 2006

In connection with his senior comprehensive exercise, Russian major Andrew Biliter directed an innovative production of The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov in Nourse Little Theater.

After studying Chekhov in a class with Carleton professor Anna Dotlibova and seeing a number of productions in Russia and the United States, Biliter became intrigued with the idea of staging the play at Carleton. “I was in love with the idea of staging Chekhov in Minnesota and not doing it as a stuffy period piece.”

In preparing for the production, Biliter studied the Russian text along with several English versions, while reading critical articles from both the academic and popular press. He then used text and video sources to learn as much as he could about a wide range of interpretations of the play, including Stanislavsky’s first production at the Moscow Art Theater, a 1990’s Italian production and a 6-hour version directed by a schoolmate of Professor Dotlibova.

Central to Biliter’s interpretation is the fact that Chekhov himself classified the play as a comedy. Says Biliter, “The play is funny because although some bad things happen to the characters, none of them are fully sympathetic, and nothing that terrible happens to any of them. In fact, very little happens at all. It is also funny because it is secretly hyperbolic and absurd.”

Biliter takes issue with “realistic” interpretations of the play that tie it too closely to turn-of-the-century Russia. The plot about the impending destruction of the cherry orchard is often interpreted as a lament for a bygone era, but Biliter sees it as being about something else entirely. “The people in this play don’t listen to what each other say. They never answer each others’ questions. They live together, but many of them are intensely lonely. The adults all behave like children. The landowners are presented with a problem, have options as to how to solve it, and do nothing to pursue any of these options. These are expressionist truths: unrealities that comment satirically or lyrically on reality.”

Rather than change the setting to, say, present-day Minnesota, Biliter strives to create the effect of “an ambiguous or abstract world—a vacuum.” The production includes a starkly white set, moving walls and furniture, and a red piano played by a pianist who acts as “an emissary from another world, a sane world.”

Biliter’s theater credits at Carleton include playing Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Touchstone in As You Like It, and Marvin in Edward Albee’s The Goat. In 2005 he directed a reconstruction of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1926 production of Gogol’s The Inspector General that was acclaimed by Carleton professors in both the Russian and Theater Departments as the best they had ever seen.