IRVINE — Stalin may not have liked most of Chekhov's plays, but he did go for "The Cherry Orchard." In fact, it may have been the only work by the Russian writer Stalin allowed staged during his repressive reign.
That was one of the facts unearthed by Alexander Zubatov during his study of the drama, which he's directing for UC Irvine. The play, opening tonight and continuing through Sunday at the Fine Arts Little Theatre, was seen by Stalin as a blow against the aristocracy, a favorite target during the Communist years, Zubatov said.
"Chekhov's plays were not permitted to be performed, but this one was, because Stalin thought it included some very socialistic, very political statements," he explained. "It was used as a pulpit to scream socialist ideas, mainly in putting down the ruling class (and supporting those) of the regime.
"Of course, that was a very superficial interpretation, one that misreads the play," Zubatov continued. "It's really more of a humanist piece, a play about dignity. In 'The Cherry Orchard,' we see how a set of people deal with changing times, (all the while) finding it difficult to remain true to themselves."
The drama tells of the once-wealthy Ranevskaya family. They are about to lose their estate and the nearby cherry orchard, a patch of land of particular joy to the clan's matriarch, Madame Ranevskaya.
The play, which heralded the extinction of the aristocracy at the turn of the century, was the last written by Chekhov, who is said to have finished it on his deathbed in 1904.
Zubatov, a theater arts graduate student who was born in Russia and lived there until he was 13, said Stalin viewed the family's fall as a metaphor for the ultimate fate of the ruling class.
Now 30, Zubatov, believes a different interpretation points out how relevant the play is today. Although Zubatov lives in Newport Beach, he regularly visits Russia. He spent two years there soon after 1990 and saw firsthand how changing times are creating new upheavals.
They may be dissimilar to those portrayed by Chekhov, but they nonetheless challenge Russians and other people in the region to make the right decisions in the political, economic and artistic arenas, Zubatov said. And while business opportunities abound in his native country, he noted that "intellectuals and artists are suffering" in this new, potentially profitable environment.
"I think it is becoming more difficult, not easier, for certain classes to survive," said Zubatov, drawing a parallel between Chekhov's Ranevskayas and contemporary artists and philosophers. "There are many economic opportunities, but for people who are not willing to cut throats, it's going to be a very difficult time.
"Theaters are closing down because they aren't profitable. Audiences are interested in their daily bread, not art. The classes are almost in a gladiator battle for survival, and people who have maintained their values are being put to the test."
As for his own test in staging "The Cherry Orchard," Zubatov said his heritage has helped him understand the play.
"Although there have been (valuable interpretations by) American directors, I think I bring a sense of the real Russia to the production," he explained.
Zubatov was born in Odessa near the Black Sea and grew up in Moscow. As Jews, his family fled the Soviet Union to escape religious persecution that continued even as they were leaving the country, he said.
"I remember that we were all stripped at the border, because we were Jewish," Zubatov recalled. "We were allowed to leave, but they were searching our bags . . . they were sticking things in my parents' bodies to see if they were smuggling anything."
Once in the United States, Zubatov adapted to the culture, eventually graduating from MIT with an engineering degree. His father was also an engineer, but his mother was an actress, which influenced him in pursuing his theater studies at UCI.
As for the future, Zubatov said he's not sure which direction to take. He may continue his acting and directing, but the potential for wealth in the new Russia is also appealing. Zubatov said he's considering starting a computer business there with a few friends.
"This is a constant struggle for me, and I'm not even sure where I'll be living," he said. "I'm straddling two cultures. Of course, growing up there, the pull is very powerful."
\o7 "The Cherry Orchard" by Anton Chekhov opens tonight at 8 in UC Irvine's Fine Arts Little Theatre. Continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. $6-$8. (714) 856-6616 and (714) 856-5000. \f7