Ludmila Patlanjoglu*

The Romanian Television (TVR) and The Contemporary Theatre Foundation. Livada de vişini / The Cherry Orchard by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Direction: Alexandru Lustig, set design: Dana Moraru, costumes: Silvia Porojnicu (Valeria Seciu’s costumes: Lia Manţoc), director of photography: Cristian Stoian, chief editor: Judith Georgescu, producers: András Demeter, Liana Săndulescu. Cast: VALERIA SECIU (Ranevskaya), IOANA ANASTASIA ANTON (Anya), ANDREEA BIBIRI (Varya), MARIAN RÂLEA (Gayev), DAN AȘTILEAN (Lopakhin), MIHAI CĂLIN (Trofimov), GELU NIȚU (Piscik), ANCA SIGARTĂU (Charlotte Ivanovna), ADRIAN CIOBANU (Yephikodov), RUXANDRA MANIU (Dunyasha), ION BESOIU (Firs), DAN RĂDULESCU (Yasha). Date of the premiere: 23 October 2016.

Prestigious Romanian creative art unions—the Theatre Union of Romania, the Romanian Filmmakers’ Union, the International Association of Theatre Critics-Theatre Studies—have rewarded through nominations and awards the standout TV theatre premiere of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. A powerful and profound performance, featuring well-reputed actors and distinguished TV professionals, led by young director Alexandru Lustig. Using Chekhov’s text as starting point, the director’s reading, through the novelty features it brings, enters into a creative dialogue with illustrious scenic viewpoints.

Valeria Seciu (Ranyevskaya) with director Alexandru Lustig

A graduate of the University of Theatre and Film “I.L. Caragiale” Bucharest, Alexandru Lustig had already received an award for his licenciate production, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The encounters with two remarkable Romanian professors and directors have been of paramount importance to his professional development: Alexa Visarion (acclaimed for his productions of Chekhov) and David Esrig (for whom Lustig acted as assistant director in Romania and Germany, at the Athanor Academy of Theatre and Film, led by Esrig). The attendance in a workshop held at the famous Actors Studio in the United States was also decisive. Alexandru Lustig is the author of a doctoral thesis that analyzes Shakespeare and Chekhov in parallel, in light of their respective testamentary plays, The Tempest and The Cherry Orchard. Presently, the young director is preparing two productions for Romanian Television, The Tempest and Matteo Circus, whose author is Adrian Lustig, his father, a renowned and esteemed Romanian playwright.

In TVR’s Cherry Orchard, Alexandru Lustig sees Ranevskaya’s journey through the seasons of her own existence, in search of a lost paradise. The high points are the two shocking book covers, opening and closing the show. On her sickbed, disfigured by disease, Ranevskaya dreams of the orchard of her girlhood and young age. A flip of the camera and the face with atrophied muscles and sagging skin is miraculously restored under bright makeup. This is the starting point of an initiatory pilgrimage into her past, through the four seasons, always near the orchard—first green, then in full bloom, inundated by yellowing leaves and, finally, motionless in the frost. Next to that space, breathing mysteriously under a translucent fabric, Ranevskaya moves as if in a trance, tortured by psychic turmoil and physical pain. Oblivious to the happiness and unhappiness of all those around, she is looking for her lost childhood and young age. Two sequences that seem descended from a Bergman film convey the heroine’s state. Through a “magic trick” of Charlotte Ivanovna’s, Ranevskaya enters with her brother, Gayev, into the hundred-year-old wardrobe. When the door reopens, the two come out together still, but as children now, frolicking for a moment in the house haunted by the ghosts of the past. While waiting for the orchard to be sold, Ranevskaya waltzes with imaginary partners, young men in wigs and period costumes, tokens of a happy past when noblemen and admirals would come to dance at the ball.

Ion Besoiu (Firs) and Marian Râlea (Gayev)

In Alexandru Lustig’s show, Ranevskaya and the elderly valet, Firs, are “spirits of the orchard,” two living dead, agonizing alongside the orchard. The “passing to the other side” means, to the characters, a coming to terms with oneself and the world, the opening of a road to redemption and light. Finally, Ranevskaya breathes her last with the orchard in her heart, her face beautiful and young, watched over by Charlotte Ivanovna. Two little lights—Firs’ and Ranevskaya’s candles—tremble in the darkness that invades the screen. The curtain falls on a troubling realisation: Death is Life.

Valeria Seciu as Ranyevskaya

The other characters desire to live: they try to save themselves through love, elopement, exile, money, power . . . Indifferent to the sacrifice of the orchard’s tearing down, they say no to the failures and lamentations of the elderly. The assemblage of states of mind is constructed with finesse and force, expressively balancing dialogue and monologue. The director’s imagination excels at constructing referential monological sequences, providing genuine acting landmarks. Ranevskaya sits on a chair in front of the cross of her child drowned many years before. Cigarette in mouth, still a captive of past pleasures, she evokes his death, mixing it with the passion for her infidel Paris lover. A memorable sequence is also that where Lopakhin howls his happiness at having bought the orchard where his grandfather and great grandfather were serfs. His delirious discourse about felling the trees to the ground and how the villas will be built is visually sustained by the character’s massive back, which covers the screen ominously, dictatorially. Another impressive monologue is the one uttered by Charlotte Ivanovna while looking us in the eye: a whisper about her loneliness and pointlessness in the world (“I know neither who I am nor what I live for”).

Dan Aştilean as Lopakhin

The staging is visually, pictorially and aurally seductive. The director’s choice of cast is worthy of note: actors of different ages and acting styles, led by a sure hand, performing harmoniously and winning us over with their all too human truth and artistic force.

What is positively magnetizing in the show is the presence of a great actress, Valeria Seciu, as Ranevskaya. A performer of acknowledged Chekhovian vocation, she leaves her own mark on the role. An ideal incarnation of Alexandru Lustig’s vision, she constructs a nightmarish, lucid dream through the sheer power of motionlessness and silence, the expressiveness of her divine voice, the deep eyes—assets that made her into a famed figure of the Romanian theatre. For Ranevskaya, the actress was distinguished with the 2016 Critics’ Award by the International Association of Theatre Critics-Theatre Studies.

Mihail Călin (Trofimov) with Ioana Anastasia Anton (Anya)

Another argument in favor of the exceptional value of this TV theatre staging was the fact that it was selected and premiered in the National Theatre Festival, an elite event of the Romanian theatre. The show simply demands to be staged in a theatre next. In the book Alexandru Lustig launched on the occasion, entitled The Tempest and the Cherry Orchard in a Mirror, the director describes in detail another disturbing scenic vision, where the orchard and its universe exist inside a giant cherry! 

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*Ludmila Patlanjoglu is theatre critic and historian, as well as University Professor (PhD) at the “I.L. Caragiale” National University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography UNATC in Bucharest, Romania. She was a member of the Executive Committee (ExCom) of the International Association of Theatre Critics IATC / AICT (2001-2008) and the President of the Romanian Section (1999-2008). She is currently the Honorific President of IATC / AICT Romanian Section-Theatre Studies (since 2015), member of the Editorial Board of Critical Stages, the web journal edited by IATC, and member of the Romanian Association of Theatre Artists, UNITER. She directed the 2002 and 2003 editions of the National Theatre Festival in Romania and the 21st Congress of IATC organized in Bucharest, in 2003. She launched the THALIA Prize (designed by Dragoş Buhagiar) offered by IATC to the great theatre personalities of the world.

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Life and Death—in the Mirror