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DramaWatch: Chekhov for modern times

PETE's radically slimmed-down "Cherry Orchard" streamlines a classic. Plus Risk/Reward, last chance for "Mr. Madam," and more.

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Rehearsing in mid-July on the blossoming “Cherry Orchard” set. Photo courtesy PETE

“Everything’s alright now,” declares the country gentleman Gayev. “Before the cherry orchard was sold, everyone was agitated. Everyone suffered. Now that the matter has been taken care of, we’ve calmed down.”

It’s a late morning in the Diver Studio Theatre at Reed College, amid rehearsals for a production of The Cherry Orchard by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Director Alice Reagan and a handful of actors are working on some scenes from the end of the play, after the the point when the narrative’s main question – will the estate and its orchard, which have been in Gayev’s family for generations, be auctioned off to pay the mortgage – has been answered. PETE co-founder Cristi Miles plays Gayev, a fellow practically blinded by his lifetime of privilege, and each time she repeats his little speech, she adjusts shades of timing and emphasis, making him seem now more sanguine, now more delusional.

“Now that the matter has been” – Miles pauses this time through, as if searching for a euphemism – “taken care of, we’ve calmed down. We’re happier, even. I’m a banker now, a finance guy.” At that, she lets out a little self-satisfied chuckle, but lets it trail just for a second into what looks more like crying. 

That sure seems appropriate. However much acceptance and optimism we might muster these days, the shadows of chaos and loss linger everywhere. Everything’s alright? More like everything’s complicated. PETE originally scheduled this production for the summer of 2020, but that plan, of course, changed with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. When the public-health outlook finally began to brighten, the show was rescheduled for January 2022, only to have the surge of the Omicron variant scuttle that. Then, earlier this week – several days after that rehearsal – a case of Covid within the cast put the show in jeopardy yet again. Who would blame Miles and company for not knowing whether to laugh or cry?

As of Wednesday, PETE had called up an understudy and was “planning on opening on Friday, but taking it day by day, as is the way in the time of Covid,” wrote co-founder Rebecca Lingafelter in an email.

Back in the rehearsal at Reed, Reagan runs Lingafelter, Amber Whitehall, Murri Lazaroff-Babin and Sofia Marks through a giddy little dance routine set to a sort of Slavic-pop rumpshaker, refines the logistics of moving some props around, and repeats the dialogue of the family members preparing to leave their beloved home for good. As always in Chekhov, as in so much of life, there’s a constant teetering along the comic edge of sad circumstance.

“Can I tell you what I see, what this scene is about?” Reagan says at one point. “It’s a little cuckoo clock of everyone running in and out while saying, ‘Everything’s OK!’ So, keep it light and floppy.”

“The thing about Chekhov is, everyone has their own version of what the thing about Chekhov is,” the playwright Richard Kramer said back in 2011, when Artists Rep staged his adaptation of The Cherry Orchard. But Reagan’s version has something in common with the version espoused by Stepan Simek, the Lewis & Clark College theater professor who started PETE on a series of Chekhov projects several years ago. Dissatisfied with the doleful approach of so many American translations and productions, Simek translated and adapted The Three Sisters. PETE gave that a wonderfully multifaceted staging in 2014, followed in 2018 by an energetic, music-drenched Uncle Vanya.

When PETE and Lewis & Clark College teamed up later in 2018 to present “Chekhov in the 21st Century: a Symposium” – which featured a “Whole Day Chekh-o-Rama” or “Anton-palooza,” with readings of four major plays adapted by Simek, the Czech-born professor told ArtsWatch, “My understanding of Chekhov — and if you see how productions are treated in Russia, it is so fast, so aggressive — is that what those plays are about is those characters finding themselves glued to their existence. And they are trying desperately to unglue themselves. They find themselves on an ice floe, melting under their feet, and they are dancing as fast as they can to keep from noticing that.”

Not only does that sound a bit like Reagan’s cuckoo-clock analogy, but it presages an idea of Reagan’s that underlies her adaptation of Simek’s translation/adaptation of Cherry Orchard, the version that opens this weekend. According to Lingafelter, Reagan was intrigued by the Arctic setting of a late, unfinished Chekhov work and suggested borrowing that element for Cherry Orchard. “We were like, ‘Yeah, that sounds weird. Let’s do that,’” she says.

More to the point, she adds, the specter of climate change in such regions has resonances with the play’s themes of transformation and catastrophe, sharpening “the lens of human behavior inside these conditions.”

An even bigger change to that lens here involves which humans are behaving. Reagan’s adaptation trims Simek’s text considerably, largely by removing several characters and leaving only six: Gayev; his sister (the estate’s owner), Lyubov Ranyevskaya; her daughter, Anya; her adopted daughter, Varya; an idealist and “eternal student” named Peter Trofimov; and Yermolai Alexeyevich Lopachin, a now-wealthy businessman who spent his childhood as a “poor little peasant” on the Ranyevskaya estate. 

Reagan’s script leaves out a variety of servants and neighbors, whose fears and foibles and longings often provide both an emotional richness and narrative complexity to Chekhov’s masterpiece. Certainly a cast of six is simpler and more economical to work with than a cast of a dozen or more, but Lingafelter says the motivation was more about “making our own Cherry Orchard, wanting to do something different” with such an oft-produced classic. 

Even for those unfamiliar with the missing characters, there’s something potentially poignant about a once-grand estate now inhabited by so few. And though Reagan likely wasn’t intending it as such when she proposed the approach a few years ago, it now serves, Lingafelter observes, as “a little bit of a meditation on absence” that carries an extra resonance in these times.

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At the close of Chekhov’s original, after the estate has been sold, everyone leaves, but through the confusion of the departure (as well as the general self-absorption of the characters) an ill and aged manservant called Firs is forgotten and locked inside. It’s a piercingly personal note of tragedy that echoes the passing, perhaps for good and ill, of the social-caste system that has defined him. 

Having excised Firs altogether, Reagan’s adaptation – at least in the reading of it – retains what may be the most famously poignant pair of stage directions in the history of theater: First, “a distant sound, as if coming from the sky…a dismal sound of a string breaking; woefully and slowly dying away.” Then, the thudding “sound of an ax hitting a tree in the orchard far away.” 

It remains to be seen what effect this has in the playing of it. But it might be that without the virtually entombed Firs as an all-too-human embodiment of finitude, that idea’s more abstract expression through the sound effects proves even more powerful, its significance more clearly global.

Perhaps as if to say everything’s OK…or maybe nothing is.

The flattened stage

How about a glimpse of the true history of The Cherry Orchard, with a snippet of none other than the famed Konstantin Stanislavsky – who directed the 1904 premier for the Moscow Art Theatre – performing:

Sticking with our Cherry Orchard jag, here’s a musical impression as another way into the heart of the matter:

Weekender

Created in 2008 as a part of Hand2Mouth Theatre’s forward-thinking mission and operating these days as an independent organization (though under the residency aegis of Artists Rep),  Risk/Reward presents its annual festival of new performance, taking over The Armory’s Ellyn Bye Studio for a varied program of music, movement and hybrid forms.

Portland dancer and choreographer Noelle Simone is among the participants in “Risk/Reward.” Photo: curvygrl@mac.com

Closing

As much as just about any theater company in the Portland area, Triangle Productions has a clear identity, and lately that has centered especially on founder Don Horn’s determination to record aspects of the social history of sexuality and LGBTQ experiences in America. The latest installment in this project is Mr. Madam, which tells the life story of Kenneth Marlowe, a gay man who worked as a female impersonator before moving on to running escort services and brothels.

Adapted from a series of memoirs that Marlowe published in the 1960s, Horn’s play starts with Marlowe reflecting on his life in a mood of melancholy egotism: “I made it to the damn Times! Why doesn’t anyone remember me?” On the one hand, Marlowe’s achievements – beyond those obscure memoirs and serving as inspiration for Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City – aren’t exactly for the ages. On the other hand, if it’s colorful adventure you crave, Marlowe’s your man. 

Wade McCollum scintillates as “Mr. Madam.” Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

Well, until he isn’t. Marlowe’s tale zips from childhood lessons in crochet and Mae West impersonating, to early anatomical explorations with neighbor boys, teenage cruising, falling into a drag career, detours into religion and the Army, and so on, winding up with a seemingly rather sudden decision to undergo sexual reassignment and become Kate Marlowe.

Horn told me after the show I saw that he has hopes of developing the play into something that can run Off Broadway. The script likely will need a much tighter focus for that: There’s loads of fascinating/funny material throughout this version, but a relative unknown such as Marlowe might be better revealed through a carefully shaped narrative arc rather than the almost birth-to-grave biography attempted here.

But the writing’s already delightfully dishy and gets some contrasting dramatic tension in scenes involving a menacing mobster/impresario and a harrowing (though, thankfully, brief) Army barracks gang rape.

The other great virtue Mr. Madam has, at least for now, is the remarkable skill of Wade McCollum, who portrays Marlowe as a curious combination of plain-spoken Midwesterner and incorrigible coquette, employing a Cheshire-cat grin whenever a charm offensive is called for, while also slipping fluidly among numerous other characters in the course of the recollections. McCollum’s performance is plenty of reason to catch this show before the end of its run this weekend. But the history lesson is pretty interesting, too. 

***

In Elgin, Oregon, the Opera House Shakespeare Festival still has a few more performances in its inaugural run. The Merchant of Venice, in a compact modern adaptation by Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Bill Alexander, directed by Grant Turner and John Kretzu, boasts a riveting performance from Kevin Cahill as Shylock. Portland favorite (and ArtsWatch contributor) Bobby Bermea brings the pain and pathos to the tragedy of Othello, and gets a worthy counterweight in Liberty O’Dell as an Iago whose evil comes across as boldly unrepentant but not in the least cliched or cartoonish. And a teen-cast version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Grant Turner’s teenage daughter Anne, reminds you just how much innocent pleasure a spirited and unpretentious approach to Shakespeare can provide. With all of these shows, what they lack in elaborate design and production frills they more than make up for with the clarity of their storytelling and their evident love for the power of a night in the theater.

***

Also sliding off the calendar soon: Corrib Theatre’s feminist spin on fairy-tale themes, Kissing the Witch; the touring Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s furball fantasia, Cats; and Marc Acito’s perceptive social-mores comedy Birds of a Feather at Astoria’s Ten Fifteen Theater.

The best line I read this week

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”

— Joan Didion, Why I Write

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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