When Simon Godwin decided to take on The Cherry Orchard, an Anton Chekhov classic that has been seen on Broadway over 10 times, he knew that he would have to take a fresh approach to it. The associate director at the National Theatre in London has developed a reputation for making bold choices on the stage—his recent production of Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company featured a black actor in the title role and was transposed to an African state—and his Broadway debut is no exception.
Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, Godwin’s Cherry Orchard has been adapted by Stephen Karam, who won a Tony Award for his play The Humans. “I felt it would be very useful to have a new version of the play written in an American vernacular and style,” explains the director. “[Karam] is young and brilliant and a chronicler of families—for better or for worse, the joy and the pain of being part of a family—so he seemed like a really good fit for Chekhov.”
Godwin says that Karam’s script feels dually new and familiar. “It’s a nice combination of respecting the origins and roots of the play in 1904 Russia and, yet, making gestures that welcome [today’s] audience in,” he says. The Cherry Orchard is considered by many to be a Chekhov masterpiece, so was he nervous about changing it?
“It’s daunting because lots of people have memories and impressions of the play. It’s a bit like doing Hamlet,” says Godwin. “Everyone arrives with their impression of what Hamlet should look like. But the aim is to invigorate Chekhov. To respect people’s impressions of it and, yet, share with them an image or an idea of the play that they don’t necessarily expect.”
“There’s something very liberating about seeing the play as a new play,” he continues. “It’s invigorating for all of us working on it.” Godwin has assembled an all-star cast for the production, including Diane Lane, Tony winners Chuck Cooper, Joel Grey and John Glover, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Tavi Gevinson.
“As an actor I have always felt really intimidated by Chekhov, and maybe even as an audience member,” says Keenan-Bolger, who plays Varya in the Broadway revival. “Stephen Karam’s adaptation really changed that for me. For the first time, I had access to the characters and what they were going through in a very different way ... It felt like I was reading the play for the first time.”
“I cannot believe how many of these themes are still so relevant, particularly in our society today,” she adds. For much of the cast, the play feels surprisingly pertinent despite having been written over a century ago. Centered on a Russian aristocrat Lyubov who is returning from Paris, Chekhov's comedy highlights the growing irrelevancy of the Russian upper classes as the former peasant class begins to gain power.
“The play is incredibly relevant,” agrees Cooper, who plays Simeonov-Pischik. “It’s about the changing of a culture and the changing of a society. It’s an epic change. That can easily be said about what’s going on right now…with the polarity of our country. We’re basically in a culture war, and these characters in The Cherry Orchard [also] find themselves on the brink of a culture war.”
Harold Perrineau, who plays Lopakhin, echoes this sentiment. “One of the themes in The Cherry Orchard is changing times. It’s about how this community and how they see themselves,” says the actor. “In 2016, our Presidential race is kind of asking [us] the same thing: ‘How do we want to see our country?’ We have two choices, so how are we going to move forward together?”
Godwin’s Cherry Orchard certainly looks more contemporary. As he did with Hamlet, he’s assembled a diverse cast of talented actors to embody this new Chekhovian world. “I’ve never seen a Chekhov play done with a diverse cast,” says Keenan-Bolger. “I’m so grateful to Simon for making that choice because I really think it highlights the different experiences of the characters. I think it will make it accessible to so many more people.”
And that is the very intention of the director, who is wasting no time cementing his reputation as the master of re-invention. Godwin and Karam’s production of an all-new Cherry Orchard began performances September 15 at the American Airlines Theatre and will officially open October 16.
Tickets are available by calling (212) 719-1300, online at roundabouttheatre.org and in person at any Roundabout box office.