Equal parts pastiche and Commie commentary, Nic Ularu’s “The Cherry Orchard Sequel” takes an absurdly presumptuous premise — the story begun in Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece continues! — and creates a strange world uniquely its own, haunted by the encroaching Red Army, a nostalgic ache for the time before the Bolsheviks and, of course, ghosts. Walking into the theater, the biggest surprise is that Ularu has chosen to tilt at windmills. Walking out, the biggest surprise is that he’s managed to fell one.
The beginning of “The Cherry Orchard Sequel,” set at the rise of Stalin 18 years after the end of the 1904 Chekhov play, throws things into disarray immediately. The first character to appear is Grisha (Patrick Michael Kelly) — the deceased son of the aristocratic Ranevskaya (Robyn Hunt) — who never actually appeared in Chekhov’s play. Firs (Steve Pearson), Ranevskaya’s elderly manservant, speaks to Grisha, but wasn’t Firs doddering and near death in the other story? Isn’t Grisha dead?
Yes and yes, in fact. They’re both dead, and enjoying post-death existence as ghosts who haunt the house purchased by the former serf Lopahkin (Richard Jennings), an action that signaled both the beginning of Communism and the end of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
Ularu fleshes out his observations on Russian life under Stalin through the characters: Former serf Lopahkin is now as despised by the party as aristocratic Ranevskaya and is thus in danger.
Epihodov (John-Patrick Driscoll), once a clerk for Ranevskaya, bears witness to the inevitable chain of events: The Communists arrive in the form of Comrade Boris (Zachary T. Hanks), an amoral gangster who is a stone’s throw from the KGB agents to come. Petya Trofimov (Paul Kaufmann), the impassioned leftist intellectual, returns as a Communist soldier and tries to subvert the Red Army’s assault on Lopahkin and the rest of his adopted family. But the play sadly reveals that no one likes intellectuals, not the Tsar, and not Stalin.
The Romanian Ularu is nothing if not surefooted, but there are times during “The Cherry Orchard Sequel” when you might wish for an encyclopedia or at least a handy copy of “The Plays of Anton Chekhov.” His reliance on the master text is a little tiring, even though he is actually building to something and needs to stand on Chekhov’s shoulders to reach it.
At the end of this play’s predecessor, Chekhov had created a careful tableau of impractical dignity and comfort around the lovable, silly denizens of the Gayev estate. He told us that — with the rise of the uncultured Lopahkin –there was no way these lives could last, dropping the curtain to spare us the view of the fall.
Now, years after the fall and in the midst of the tentative renewal (with Vladimir Putin in charge, the very tentative renewal), Ularu refuses us that kindness, chronicling unsentimentally what happened to Russia during Stalin. It’s hard to look at, but Chekhov was sadly predicting the future.
Ularu, on the other hand, uses Chekhov as a fixed point around which to sketch his outrage at history. It’s timely, especially with history on the verge of repeating itself under Putin, but more than that, it’s just good, enigmatic storytelling.