THEATER

OSF seeks the ‘man’ in TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

The all-female version of "Two Gents" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival brilliantly explores what it means to become a man

By HAILEY BACHRACH

How do you become a man?

As an actress onstage, that is. There are traditional costuming clues, of course, like binding your breasts and cutting your hair. But do you puff out your chest and swagger, or is it better to affect a casual air and a slouch? How best to modulate your voice, to make sure no sudden squeaks or cracks give you away? When your best friend is leaving home for the first time, should you stick to shaking hands, or can you hug?

Sarah Rasmussen, director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s current all-female production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, seems to have noticed that the eponymous young protagonists of Shakespeare’s play are asking themselves the same questions. Early on in the play, the father of one of said gentlemen acknowledges that his son “cannot be a perfect man,/Not being tried and tutor’d in the world.” He needs to travel, either to court or the wars or university. “Whither were I best to send him?” the father frets. What makes a perfect man?

Sofia Jean Gomez and Celeste Den in OSF's all-women version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona"/Jenny Graham

Sofia Jean Gomez and Celeste Den in OSF’s all-women version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona”/Jenny Graham

In this, one of Shakespeare’s earliest (if not his first) comedies, best friends Proteus and Valentine find themselves separated for the first time when they embark on apparently incompatible paths to manhood: Proteus is madly in love with the Veronese maiden Julia, whereas Valentine is off to make a name for himself in the court of Milan. Their mirrored goals find mirrored looks in actresses Sofia Jean Gomez and Christiana Clark. Both tall and husky voiced, Gomez’s Valentine sports a bleach-blond fringe and an exuberant grace, while Clark’s Proteus has cultivated an impressive bouffant and a studied languor. Valentine flails, Proteus saunters. Both prove false. Valentine throws over his devotion to a single life when he falls in love with the Duke of Milan’s daughter Silvia; Proteus loses himself when he, too, is enraptured with Silvia’s beauty and decides to betray both Julia and Valentine to win her heart.

Continues…

What does it feel like to not be the star in your own story? To sense that you’re a peripheral and ill-informed character in someone else’s much-more-profound mystery?

That’s a circumstance that we all—I mean, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—face, and Anon It Moves has spent the last month putting it across as eloquently as Tom Stoppard penned it, fittingly in rep with the company’s female-fronted Hamlet. This weekend (starting tonight) is your last chances to catch the show(s).

Stoppard’s R&G is to rhetoric, reasoning and inflection what one of Bach’s etudes is to music. It’s practice for its own sake, playfulness with the difficulty of the medium that usually resolves by finishing where it started. Why are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here? They can’t decide, so they depart. Why are they alive? They can’t figure that out, so they die. Stoppard’s comments on Israel, redistribution of wealth, and “love, blood, and rhetoric” all boiling down to blood bring further immediacy, discomfort, and inconclusive scrutiny to the story. Heads/tails. Pros/cons. Actors/…whores? If R&G leaves you satisfied, you’ve misconstrued it. But happily, Anon It Moves shows mastery at the rhetorical recital.

randg2

 

Joel Patrick Durham as Rosencrantz is a big baby in the best way, wide-eyed and shruggingly trusting. Caitlin Fisher-Draeger is equally convincing as the pair’s self-appointed philosopher and protector Guildenstern. Just like Hamlet, Draeger plays the role female rather than posturing its written gender, which lends her a big-sister, babysitter authority. While she’s wagging an index finger, testing the direction of the real and metaphorical wind, he’s gazing on in resigned wonder. The pairing makes a welcome variation on the Lenny-George dynamic that happens when both roles are played by men, and in a script which mocks the two characters’ interchangeability, this version quite thoroughly distinguishes one from the other. (Note: another existential bro-sis play on now at Coho is The Sweatermakers. Read a review.)

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The troupe of players-within-the-play, bit parts in Hamlet, get a lot more spotlight in R&G, and Paul Susi, their spokesman, gets to expound on the charisma and versatility he shows in Hamlet as the sandwich-waving, tragicomic grave digger. Here, he’s even more humorous, and even more ominous. In life, Susi is also a playwright (Read a review of his play about single adult housemates, All at Sea, at Bodyvox last season.), and an at-risk youth advocate. His characters’ comments comparing theater and sex trafficking/survival have a chilling immediacy, exuding what seems like legitimate real-life insight both topics. He’s an excellent focal point for the (almost line-less) other players to mug and mime against, and they rise to the darkly comic challenge.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead shows Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 at Zoomtopia on SE 8th and Morrison.

 

 

 

 

Dan Donohue is a sublime Richard III at OSF

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Richard III boasts a 'perfect' Richard for the perfect villain

By HAILEY BACHRACH

There aren’t many English kings who are famous enough to spark international excitement when their corpse is discovered… underneath a parking lot, no less. But that is, of course, exactly what happened to the remains of King Richard III in 2012, whose location had been lost in the centuries since his death. Then again, maybe this can be explained by revising that first thought slightly: There aren’t many English kings whose bodies could be discovered underneath a parking lot, period.

But this is Richard III, whose legacy is half slasher movie and half vaudeville act, who might be the object of history’s first concerted smear campaign, whose deeds are legendary even as the facts of many of his alleged crimes are lost to history. And no account has been as influential in preserving and presenting at least one version of his story than Shakespeare’s play about his reign, currently running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with the wonderful Dan Donohue in the title role.

Dan Donohue and RJ Foster battle for the crown in RICHARD III at Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Jenny Graham

Dan Donohue and RJ Foster battle for the crown in RICHARD III at Oregon Shakespeare Festival/Jenny Graham

Much like Richard himself, Shakespeare’s Richard III is flashy and fun, but much trickier than it initially appears. It’s steeped in the events of the three plays that preceded it in Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy (Henry VI Parts 1-3). Unseen murders, battles, and marriages are alluded to and names are dropped everywhere (plus, everyone seems to be named Edward). The tangled web of allegiances and grudges that Richard hacks his way through is rooted in a past that Shakespeare’s audiences had just seen in the prequels, if they didn’t know it already, and therefore goes largely unexplained. The actors’ skilled and articulate delivery (not to mention the addition, new this year, of artificial amplification in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, a brilliant decision) make it easier than usual to trace the references to the past, but director James Bundy does not attempt to simplify the historical framework on which the story rests.

The costumes (Ilona Somogyi) and set (Richard L. Hay) are both fairly traditional. The façade of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre is left almost untouched, and the addition of small platforms and staircases is integrated into the existing architecture. The costumes are of the period, almost the Elizabethan silhouettes that we associate with Shakespeare, but not quite. The nearness in time of the historical Richard to Shakespeare’s own is taken by most critics to explain why Richard III is his most biased history play, perhaps the only one with a true villain. Richard’s status as the evil heart of the play was enhanced in the eighteenth century rewrite by Colley Cibber that completely replaced Shakespeare’s text on stages in England and eventually America’s stages, too, until the 1870s. This adaptation made all of Richard’s victims morally irreproachable, presumably to hammer home the unquestionable injustice of Richard’s actions.

Continues…

‘Sweatermakers': dramatic tension, loose ends

Playwrights West's Andrew Wardenaar's world premiere is short on exposition, but full of humor, suspense and empathy.

Brin and Henry are siblings, roommates, and the only two workers in a mysterious bespoke sweater factory. They’re constantly teasing and tickling each other, sharing memories and cookies, sleeping and waking and working side by side.

Henry (J.R. Wickman) also seems to be falling in love with Brin (Jen Rowe), which is freaking her out; she dreams of escaping their isolated snow-globe of a life by traveling to Europe and falling in love. Brin and Henry are haunted by a tragic past, but we never learn specifically what that means.

Jen Rowe and J.R. Wickman play a full-grown brother and sister with childish ways.

Jen Rowe and J.R. Wickman play a full-grown brother and sister with childish ways.

That’s just one of many expositions that emerging playwright Andrew Wardenaar leaves out of his engaging, absurd-ish thriller The Sweatermakers. The impulse to compliment the play’s unique feel while challenging its vagary tempts a whole skein of knitter puns:

A gripping yarn! But full of holes. Many unexpected twists, but soft on the details.

Knitted brow, itching to know, being strung along, purls of wisdom…

Ahem. Moving on.

Continues…

Lost in Space: Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders

Portland singer-songwriter's ambitious multimedia production feels incomplete.

by JAMES MCQUILLEN

Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders begins in darkness sometime in the distant future in outer space, with Waller himself taking the role of “an intelligent autonavigator program,” according to the plot synopsis on the front page of the program. His voice is wry and world-weary, suggesting David Rakoff at the helm of the USS Enterprise. When he comes into view, and for much of the rest of the hour-long piece, he appears to be in search of a fainting couch (at one point, he collapses across the camera dolly track laid out in a semicircle onstage). Traveling though a universe of existential issues, who wouldn’t be tired?

In interviews and a preview of the piece with Portland’s Fear No Music last November, the singer-songwriter, theater artist and indie darling talked up the piece, a theatrical song cycle that promised to embrace Polynesian navigation, self-driving cars and much more in addressing the essential human questions of where we are and where we’re going. In its completed form at Imago Theatre Friday night, it seemed as impossibly ambitious as it did when it was a work in progress.

Imago Theatre hosted the Oregon preview  of the fully staged version of Holcombe Waller's Wayfinders.

Imago Theatre hosted the Oregon preview of the fully staged version of Holcombe Waller’s Wayfinders.

The most satisfying part of the show was essentially what we got in the preview: Waller’s voice, androgynous and anodyne, tracing smooth melodic contours in electronically mixed harmonies powerfully evoking early American hymnody. That much—sounds rooted in folk tradition and enhanced with a techno veneer—made thematic sense in suggesting a cultural journey.

Sensing some coherence in the whole was a conundrum, however, and I relied increasingly on the synopsis to help out with the story even as I found the description “A Possible Plot Synopsis” frustratingly noncommittal. If the people behind the thing couldn’t nail down the narrative, it’s no surprise that I was reminded of Woody Allen’s description of a mime’s performance. (“He was either spreading a picnic blanket or milking a small goat. Next, he elaborately removed his shoes, except that I’m not positive they were his shoes, because he drank one of them and mailed the other to Pittsburgh.”) Presumably somewhere in the libretto were hints that the spacecraft was a “transhuman collective” with two passengers who weren’t “physically alive” but who lived on as “disembodied identity records within the ship’s transhuman consciousness,” but all I could tell was that one of the three remaining living characters had to die, and the French hornist and the violinist chose the flutist because she was wearing an ugly toga (in their defense, it was indeed an unattractive toga). She seemed resigned to her fate, the Waller character appeared to be hitting on her, and then (SPOILER ALERT) the ship went on its way.

Some of the words were unintelligible because of electronic distortion, but not all of the ones that could be clearly heard were as pregnant with meaning as they were intended to be. The violinist (Ellen McSweeney) talked about death in vaguely Laurie Anderson style; Waller rambled about a variety of things; and the underutilized ensemble lent slow, spare instrumental accompaniment. Audiences need to be active participants in making meaning in art, but a creator should make some effort to meet them halfway. Much of Wayfinders seemed, in the end, to be a piling on of allusions and aspirations with little connective tissue.

When I reviewed last November’s preview, I wrote that “Wayfinders, in its fragmentary, unfinished form, seemed more like an aspiration than a collaboration, and its frontman like a coffeeshop charmer with big plans for big thoughts in a big project yet to be realized.” It still felt like that in finished form on Friday night.

James McQuillen is a Portland freelance writer and the classical music critic of The Oregonian.

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WAYFINDERS – MCA Chicago Development Residency (In-Progress, Excerpts 2 & 3: “When the Troubles Came” & “How to Mess You Up”) from Holcombe Waller on Vimeo.

‘Admirable Crichton’ was an unexpected delight

Portland Shakes' reading of James 'Peter Pan' Barrie's island-shipwreck satire is a neat companion to 'The Tempest'

Who knew that Sir James Matthew Barrie, the man who penned Peter Pan, was such a brilliant and merciless satirist? Well, certainly whomever had the pleasure of catching Portland Shakes’ three-date stint of staged readings of The Admirable Crichton in rep with The Tempest. Barrie’s turn-of-last-century sendup of the British class system is equal parts Pride & Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, and Gilligan’s Island…and Shakes’ treatment was hilarious.

A pre-Gilligan adventure: from the 1975 British film version,  directed by Lewis Gilbert.

A pre-Gilligan adventure: from the 1975 British film version, directed by Lewis Gilbert.

Title character Crichton is the butler in a home owned by one Lord Loam, a well-meaning old rich guy whose half-baked theories of social equality not only annoy his three daughters and his fellow aristocrats, but also frankly creep out his servants. Undaunted, Loam forces his servants and his family to dine together once a month while Crichton ironically bristles, insisting that hierarchy is more “natural” than egalitarianism. The three Loam daughters, their socialite cousin Ernest, and their friend Lord Brockelhurst huffily agree, remarking what an ideal butler Crichton is for maintaining his inferior “place.”

The Loam family embarks on a sea voyage with their butler, a handmaiden, and a priest—which sounds like the setup for a joke, and in a way, it is. Spoiler alert: they shipwreck, and we see their first rough days on a desert island, then jump ahead two years to see how they’re getting on. Though Crichton is consistent in his belief that one man should rule over another, it turns out he’s flexible on the matter of which man should lead. With his “may the best man win” approach, he finds himself the most capable survivalist on the island, and has gradually rearranged the group’s hierarchy beneath him, proclaiming this new order as “natural” as the last.

With the rigors of their final Tempest performance behind them last Sunday, the actors let loose in this comparative cake-walk. Scripts in hand, they twinkled and hammed up the hilarious mannerisms that the wry narrator (David Bodin) described. Matthew Kerrigan, fresh out of his crude and piteous Caliban role, preened and smirked as the foppish, self-satisfied Ernest. Sam Dinkowitz, still playing the fool after a turn as Stephano, drooped his eyes and affected a ridiculous king’s-English lisp as Loam’s dimwitted would-be son-in-law Lord Brockelhurst. Clara-Liis Hillier and Foss Curtis, who’d just played fairies, and Susannah Jones, who’d been Miranda, abandoned their better graces and flared their nostrils in haughty disdain as Loam’s lazy, snotty (proto-Kardashian?) daughters. And emerging ART golden boy Joshua Weinstein, who’d given his role as The Tempest’s prince a Disneyish innocence, regained his composure as the uptight-but-reliable Crichton.

Sir James Barrie, about 1910. Library of Congress/Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Sir James Barrie, about 1910. Library of Congress/Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Crichton, a pre-Gilligan’s Island professor, builds his former masters an implausible new world: a log-cabin lodge with plumbing and electricity, a mill, new animal-skin clothes and hunting weapons—though for some reason, the three women only have one functional skirt among them, and they fight over it as fiercely as over Crichton’s affections. The island’s new king is benevolent to his old boss Loam, who becomes known simply as “Daddy.” He’s less indulgent of Ernest, warning him that he’ll dunk his head in a bucket every time he utters a smug witticism. (Both of those things end up happening a lot; it turns out that the “clever” Ernest is a slow learner.) The women and the priest (Andrew Stearns) adapt more readily, becoming healthy, athletic hunter-gatherers.

But Barrie’s skewed fable doesn’t end there.

Just as the new society is operating (relatively) smoothly, and Crichton has chosen the eldest Loam girl for his bride, a British ship comes to “rescue” the party. Dutifully citing “fair play,” Crichton lights a signal fire to guide them. They promptly return to society, and resume their old roles, conveniently editing Crichton’s heroism out of the stories they tell the papers and their society friends. Once again, it’s he who’s waiting upon them. One thing has changed, though: Lord Loam is no longer fond of fraternizing with the help.

The fact that the plot comes full-circle from shipwreck to rescue is the best reason for Portland Shakes to show Crichton in rep with The Tempest. The second-best reason is that Crichton director Jon Kretzu has a keen nose for pairings. His daring Durang/Crimp combo “States of Emergency” pretty much killed at Defunkt this spring, proving him a great script sommelier. Note: Anon It Moves is currently running Hamlet in rep with Tom Stoppard’s very-complementary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, maintaining the same casting in each. Are great offerings in rep the latest game-raiser among local theaters…or is library-diving for rarer or less-recognized works still the favorite sport? Doesn’t matter. Crichton scores twice.

The Admirable Crichton is less obscure than, say, Readers Theatre Rep’s retrospective of forgotten Irish playwright Theresa Deevy, or Bag & Baggage’s discovery of never-before-performed Love’s Labour’s Lost adaptation The Students. Crichton was popular enough to inspire a 1957 movie, and has seen the spotlight as recently as 2011 in Ontario, Canada’s Shaw Festival. Still, compared to the universally known Peter Pan and The Tempest, it remains a hidden treasure.

At 3 SISTERS we laughed, we learned

An exuberant and telling production of Chekhov by the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

Irina is happily swinging to and fro just inside the entrance to the Studio Theater at Reed College for Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s version of “The Three Sisters.” She’s wearing a white party dress—it’s her birthday after all—and she’s so close to us as we file in that one of our number offers to give her a push. She accepts with joy.

We don’t pause in that “garden” space. We continue through to the great drawing room where Act One will take place. A long table is set up at one end for the cast/guests, and we audience/guests pick out seats around little tables scattered throughout the rest of the room. Sparkling pear juice is poured for us. We drink.

The set awaits the action/Owen Carey

The set awaits the action/Owen Carey

Actors filter into the space. The play begins.

Olga: Father died exactly a year ago, on the dot, May fifth, on your birthday, Irina. It was very cold that day, it snowed. I thought I wouldn’t survive it; you fainted and lay there as if you were the dead one. And now, after a year we can barely remember; you’re wearing white again, and your face is shining…*

So, yes, just like Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” But translator/director Stepan Simek, PETE, and the cast have some surprises in store. This isn’t going to be the melancholy demise of a once-proud provincial family that we might have expected since the great Russian director Stanislavski put his stamp on Chekhov’s play at the Moscow Art Theater back at the turn of the 20th century. The lines are mostly the same, the plot, the characters.
But the wonderful first act of this production might do for you what it did for me: Turn my thinking about “The Three Sisters” upside down in the most unexpected, telling, clever, and hilarious ways.

Maybe that’s not how you think you want your Chekhov? I think this Act One will convince you otherwise.

****

Where were we? Ah yes, we’d just finished off our beverages.

The actors start to speak. Some are at that big table at the end of the room, some are in the corridor outlined by rugs between the little tables where the audience is sitting, others are tucked into between those tables. Their exchanges are swift in and around and among the audience. It’s like a dizzying tracking shot in film, and Robert Altman-esque, a new exchanges seem to start before the old one is quite finished. We swivel around the space, glancing at the other audience members, past actors who are NOT speaking, before landing upon those who are. Those actors might be across the room, a mid-range “shot” or they might be right next to you for a close-up, hovering inches away. Well, maybe a foot or two.

Sometimes they address lines of exposition, like Olga’s above, directly toward us, which would have broken the fourth wall separating audience and cast in a typical proscenium stage version, if hadn’t already been demolished. It’s actually pre-party chatter (the celebration is later that night), and it’s funny, though sometimes in a bitter way. I’m thinking of the acidic way Masha says, “Who cares?”, when someone says it’s Irina’s birthday, before finishing her sentence more benignly. Beneath the jollity, there’s something else going on—the most corrosive unhappiness imaginable.

At it’s peak in this Act, as we assimilate the story and the characters, assess their states of mind, the actors throw us off the standard narrative highway we drive without paying much attention. So, Olga can seem to be the sweet center of things one minute, just a touch of hysteria to tip off her unhappiness, and then she’s hollering for a servant like a muleskinner.** She’s not all THAT fragile after all!

PETE's "The Three Sisters" includes a birthday toast by Cristi Miles (standing on the table) to Amber Whitehall (standing center)/Owen Carey

PETE’s “The Three Sisters” includes a birthday toast by Cristi Miles (standing on the table) to Amber Whitehall (standing center)/Owen Carey

The various plots unfold. Unhappily married Masha meets her lover-to-be, the new colonel of the army detachment assigned to the town, Vershenin. The Baron expresses his ardor for Irina while a vicious rival, Solyony, stalks her from across the room. Andrey and Natasha court each other. And though both Olga and Irina seem superficially happy, all they can talk about is how they’ll all finally be at peace and contented in Moscow, where dreamy men await them and a mythical professorship awaits the scholarly Andrey. Masha? Well, maybe she can visit in the summer?

It all rushes past us, unsettling our expectations minute by minute. The deep forward lean of the Baron. The dark angry eyes of Masha. The fluttery sing-song of Irina. The quacking of Solyony. Yes, actual quacking. It fits. I was laughing in my seat through all of this as I had never laughed at Chekhov before. I quite enjoyed my sparkling pear juice.

****

Chekhov and his director Stanislavski famously disagreed about Chekhov’s work, particularly his last play “The Cherry Orchard.” Here’s biographer/critic V.S. Pritchett:

Stanislavski and [playwright and co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, Vladimir] Nemirovich-Danchenko sent him long and enthusiastic telegrams. There was only one jarring note: Stanislavski had called the play “a truly great tragedy.” Tartly, and fearing Stanislavski’s possessiveness, Chekhov replied that it was not even a drama—”it is a farce.”***

Stanislavski’s somber approach won, though even he, at the end of his life, started thinking differently about Chekhov. Biographer Jean Benedetti quotes him: “After all we have lived through, it is impossible to weep over the fact that an officer is going and leaving his lady behind.” Which is what happens at the end of “The Three Sisters” (among others things).

Now, I don’t have an opinion about what the “right” way to do Chekhov or “The Three Sisters” really is. I’ve seen successful productions that were melancholy and touching, Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2009 “The Three Sisters” with a new translation by Tracy Letts, for example. Chekhov famously avoided explaining what he had written, and I doubt that he really MEANT that “The Cherry Orchard” should be played as farce. (If I were Stanislavski maybe I would have staged it that way in spite!)

Here’s Chekhov short story-writing prescription, written to his brother in 1886 (“The Three Sisters” was first staged in 1901). I think it describes his plays pretty well.

1) Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature.
2) total objectivity.
3) truthful descriptions of persons and objects.
4) extreme brevity.
5) audacity and originality: avoid the stereotype.
6) compassion.****

Again, he’s talking about short stories. “The Three Sisters” isn’t short, and we could debate what he means by “total objectivity” (which we won’t!), but maybe we understand it as a practical matter: He doesn’t want sentimental claptrap. What I like about PETE’s production is how it, mostly, emphasizes these points. When it doesn’t, it’s not quite so good, and maybe we’ll talk about that a little later.

****

I think I’m now at Act Two (technically, it’s Act Three): The audience leaves the party room for a 15-minute intermission. At its conclusion we are led down a hallway lined with portraits of 19th century military men (I think) and into the theater again. Our chairs form a square, one row deep, around a playing area, a “bedroom,” the walls of which are a white mesh scrim.

Rebecca Lingafelter as the oldest sister Olga in "The Three Sisters"/Owen Carey

Rebecca Lingafelter as the oldest sister Olga in “The Three Sisters”/Owen Carey

A fire has burned down a section of the city, and people are coming in and out of the room, Olga and Irina’s room (they’ve been kicked out by Andrey’s wife Natasha to make room for their children—almost three years have passed since Act One), first to fetch blankets, then to rest, and finally to explore their various reasons for anger bitterness, which are legion. At first the bedroom functions as a “safe room,” but it quickly becomes apparent that with velociraptors like Natasha snapping about, no room in the house is truly safe. Certainly not for the nanny: the eyes in the front of Natasha’s head have her measured to be tonight’s prey.

Olga attempts to deflect Natasha with a snarl of her own and then an explanation, but she encounters those horrible teeth (OK, this is just a metaphor!) of Natasha’s, her fury, her will to dominate. And as the Act progresses we see how badly things have gone, how out of hand Andrey’s gambling has gotten, how he’s been cuckolded by Natasha with his boss at the county council, how ill-equipped anyone is to deal with the fire, Natasha, their collapsed dreams.

Unlike Act One (and Two) in the drawing room, the audience is separated from the action by the scrim, even though we are only a very few feet away from the edge of it, astonishingly close, actually, to the heat generated in that crucible. Maybe the inferno in the town could be projected a bit more, but the Act is very effective, focused, savage.

****

The set design and the translation, which is in the current vernacular, with our “geezers” and “humongous”-es, are “audacious and original,” as Chekhov suggested. Or is it demanded, at least of himself? But so is the acting. I talked a little about PETE’s experimental approach to acting, codified by Tina Landau and Anne Bogart in “The Viewpoints Book,” a couple of weeks ago. One way to think of the actor training, ensemble building and composition creation in Viewpoints is as an alternative to the Stanislavski Method. Yes, him again.

The Method is a “naturalistic” approach to acting. Viewpoints, which was inspired by the Judson Church dance experiments of the 1960s and ‘70s, is more presentational, a more theatrical and expressionistic way of approaching acting. The quiet, somber, sad “Three Sisters” productions are Method-based. This one is far more raucous, unnatural at its best, expressive and rich with meaning, and moment-by-moment unpredictable. I’m thinking of Solyony’s quacking again.

Which is actually actor Chris Murray’s quacking, probably: Viewpoints puts the onus of each actor’s performance choices on the actor and the group. Each second can be interpreted in a variety of ways, with syllables or movements held over time, repeated, cut short, or manipulated in other ways. Bogart and Landau’s book is full of ideas and exercises to apply them.

The four core PETE actors have been using these exercises for a long time together, and their performances here are delightfully different. Amber Whitehall as the youngest sister Irina can dissemble in front of our eyes and hit ethereal places that would be difficult for a Method actor to locate…and any case would seem out of place unless everyone else was going for similar heights. I’ve already suggested how varied Rebecca Lingafelter’s approach to Olga is. Cristi Miles as Masha balances her ferocity with a shimmering calm in her romantic scenes with her lover, Vershinin, played by Michael O’Connell. And Jacob Coleman as the Baron is persistent in his courtship of Irina and then airily philosophical about…the importance of work, good hard work, which oddly is also a theme of Irina’s, nevermind that she finds real work oppressive and boring. For the Baron, of course, work means owning a brick factory.

Michael O'Connell enters the circle of "The Three Sisters," interesting Cristi Miles, behind him, greatly./Owen Carey

Michael O’Connell enters the circle of “The Three Sisters,” interesting Cristi Miles, behind him, greatly./Owen Carey

We never identify with any of these characters, at least I didn’t. I don’t think we are intended to feel sorry for them, exactly, or suffer alongside them. We are “objective.” We should laugh at their jokes and at their condition, which they bring on themselves, mostly. So, yes, they are comic, but before I took them all the way to grotesque, I’d check #6 above: “compassion.” And also the “truthful descriptions” rule. I thought Michael Chambers perfectly walked that border as the servant Ferapont; and Kathleen Worley’s nanny was dear, funny and interesting to watch without stooping either for laughs or sympathy. Nice.

This is a “mixed cast,” meaning that most of the cast are non-PETE actors. When they try to be sympathetic instead of creatively drawn, they don’t work as well in this production. Isaac Lamb’s Andrey, for example, strikes me as too warm and cuddly at first and then too pathetic—at the expense of finding truly original ideas about this weak character he plays. In another production his approach would be just fine and maybe better than fine, but not with Jahnavi Caldwell-Green breathing fire around him as Natasha. And I wanted John San Nicolas, another fine actor in the cast, to find something to play beyond passive acceptance as the husband Masha cheats on with Vershinin.

Of course, I have absolutely no idea how to do these roles in a more compelling way, I just think that the field is open to the actors to push further. And I bring it up to note the heterodoxy of the acting styles, which is a little confusing.

****

My only other reservation about this production—which, yes, I think is generally delicious, a technical term that means “I’d gladly go see it again”—is that Act Three doesn’t have the inventiveness of the first two. It’s a break-the-tents, denouement sort of scene, typical for Chekhov, and I find it amusing that he puts the duel in that section, off-stage, without serious consequences, at least to the Sisters in question. Well, I suppose Irina is spared a loveless marriage?

For that scene, the audience is situated around the action again, but this time the playing area is the “garden,” much larger. We are five year since Act One, now, the detachment of soldiers is headed out of town, Masha is heartbroken because Vershinin is among them. Irina and Olga, who is doing a job she declared she hated in Act One, are never going to make it to Moscow.

It ends in a tableaux:

Olga: The music is so happy, so full of life, and I want to live! Oh my God! Time will pass, and we’ll be gone forever, they’ll forget us, they’ll forget our faces, our voices, how many we were, but our suffering will turn into joy for people who will live after us, peace and happiness will come to earth, and they will have good things to say about us, and they’ll bless those of us who live now. Oh my dear sisters, our lives are not over yet. We will live! The music is so happy, so full of joy, and it seems that just a little bit longer, and we’ll find out why we live, why we suffer… If only one knew, if only one knew!

They play this scene “straight.” And I’d say this is wrong, based on the command against stereotypes, but maybe that one is countermanded by the law of compassion in this case?

****

The Studio Theater in the new Reed Performing Arts Building is a perfect location for this production. Technically “gifted” and almost icily cool, with high ceilings and a generous, open playing area, the place practically demands experiments of this sort.

So does the city. This particular one was a full year in the making, and that’s not counting Simek’s translation time. It was incredibly generous: The audience numbered only around 35; the cast, 14. The design team—Peter Ksander (sets), Mark Valadez (sound),
Miranda K Hardy (lights), and Jenny Ampersand (costumes)—did extraordinary work. So great a concentration of resources for such a good purpose. Simek’s conception and direction and PETE’s approach, well, as I said, they made me re-think the play, Chekhov, and the possibilities of a production of classic work in general.

We haven’t seen much Bogart-influenced work in Portland, and perhaps that’s why PETE’s work has seemed so fresh and vital through its three full-scale productions. It’s somewhat paradoxical that the intricate exercises of the Viewpoints approach, carefully worked out and clearly the product of close analysis of performance elements and possibilities, generates creative work of this order, this unexpected moment by moment. But it does. And if you’re like me, you’re thirsty for more.

PETE’s “The Three Sisters” continues at Diver Studio in the Performing Arts Building at Reed College through August 17. Audience numbers are limited. Tickets are $20-$25, with discounts for working artists, students, and seniors.

* I’m quoting from the initial version of Simek’s script, which has changed some during rehearsals.

** Although I’ve actually seen real mules pulling real wagons in real life as a boy in Clay, Kentucky, I confess I’m using the expression rather abstractly.

*** in VS Pritchett, “Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free,” pp 220-221.

**** from VS Pritchett, “The Myth Makers: European and Latin American Writers,” pp. 47-48.

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