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DramaWatch: More sugar in the Chekhov tea

PETE's "Cherry Orchard" is an energizing jolt of the sweetly unexpected. Plus the opening of "Desperate Measures" and last chance for "Bad World" and "The Music Man."

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PETE’s adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” is, among many other things, a visual feast. Photo: Owen Carey

Long ago in the 1990s, when I was a music critic for The Oregonian, I once met the jazz pianist Andrei Kitaev for lunch at The Heathman. When our coffee arrived shortly after we sat down, Kitaev scooped a couple of spoonfuls of sugar into his cup. And then another. And another. And another. And – as my eyes began to bulge and my mouth to fall open in disbelief – another. At last noticing my reaction, he shrugged and said simply, “I’m Russian.”

I was reminded of that lunch by a delightfully odd moment – one of many – in Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s new adaptation of The Cherry Orchard. In an early scene, the owner of a grand estate and its orchard, Luyba Ranyevskaya, played by Amber Whitehall, has just returned from several years abroad. As she greets friends and family and takes in the familiar surroundings, someone brings her a cup of coffee, which she holds at her side for a moment. Her brother, Leo Gayev, played by Cristi Miles, sneaks around and behind her, and while she’s not looking plops several spoonfuls into her cup from a large bag of C&H sugar. In the same scene, Miles eats spoonfuls directly from the bag – a riff on Gayev’s habit, in standard versions of the Anton Chekhov classic, of regularly popping hard candies into his mouth.

But I don’t take from that scene – any more than I did from Kitaev’s coffee – that Russian character is defined by a sweet tooth. I always took Kitaev’s offhand explanation to be less about loving sugar than about a tendency toward eccentricities and extremes, an embrace of the irrationality that seems to thread through life whether we want it to or not. In the same way, that moment in The Cherry Orchard struck me as both characteristically Russian and tellingly human.

A few years ago, when PETE and the Lewis & Clark College theater department collaborated on a multi-day Chekhov symposium featuring readings of translations by LC professor Štepán Šimek, he talked to me about why he felt compelled to create new versions.

“There’s always been something about Anglo-American interpretations: this soulful, slow, tragic vision of these plays,” said Simek, a native of Prague. “And I’m not saying that they’re not soulful and tragic, but that sense of the characters as these incredibly sad Russians, as people of another time, all this stuff about boredom and ennui … it’s like an Orientalism about the Russian soul.”

I wouldn’t guess that the nature of the Russian soul was too much on the minds of PETE and guest director Alice Reagan, who adapted Simek’s version into the streamlined script for this production. But a certain idiosyncrasy – by turns winsome and stubborn and disconsolate – flavors this show like sprinkles of nuts and swirls of syrup in a sundae. Whether or not it’s particularly Russian, you could argue that it’s at once very original and very Chekhovian. The Three Sisters in 2014 and Uncle Vanya in 2018 were inventive and engaging, to be sure, but this Cherry Orchard is the most wonderfully strange and affecting PETE Chekhov yet.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a bit to see it. In yet another Covid-related setback (the production originally was scheduled for the summer of 2020, postponed twice, and opened on June 24 with a last-minute understudy in one of the roles), this weekend’s performances are off.   

“Sadly we need to cancel all four of this weekend’s performances of Cherry Orchard, June 30-July 3, due to a positive COVID case on our team,” read a June 30 statement from PETE. “We are currently planning to extend performances so that everyone with a ticket to this weekend can see the show in the next few weeks. Please bear with us as we work out the details of our new performance dates! We should have details in place by this Saturday July 2, and we’ll reach out then with more details and options. Stay tuned, and thank you for your patience.”

PETE’s “Cherry Orchard” is an ensemble tour de force. Photo: Owen Carey

Patience will be rewarded. A fine review for ArtsWatch by Max Tapogna outlines the way the production underlines the epochal aspects of the play through allusions to climate change, as well as the deft dance it does between the tragic and the comic.

I, too, loved the many ways the performers here – especially Whitehall, who gives Ranyevskaya a gauzy distracted quality that’s both whimsical and fragile – stretch moments of both mirth and melancholy past normal limits into an uncanny resemblance of each other. The show is stuffed with gags (characters flailing their arms to the sound of roaring winds whenever a door to the outside is opened), odd juxtapositions (while the student Trofimov discourses on human dignity, Ranyevskaya’s dutiful adopted daughter Varya cleans and salts a fish) and unexpected flourishes (when Lopachin, an arriviste former peasant, announces that he’s bought the estate, balloons drop from the ceiling), all of which subtly enhance character or theme. And there’s witty/ingenious design work throughout, especially in Peter Ksander’s jewel box of a set and Jenny Ampersand’s anachronistic-jumble costumes.

Productions of The Cherry Orchard often depend on a fulcrum between laughter and tears, and how things are weighted around that point. But I’ve never seen a production perform as wild a balancing act as this one. Take my favorite example:

For all The Cherry Orchard can be made to say about human folly, about the shifting of social and economic orders, or, in this version, about the dire denouement of our current climate crisis, it’s most resonant as a study of people muddling through their lives. And in that, it’s most touching in an ostensibly romantic plot thread regarding Lopachin, that wealthy businessman, and Varya, who is part of the leisurely landowning family but is more like an unpaid household manager. They care for each other and are destined to get married. Or so everyone tells them. 

And so a quietly poignant highlight of any Cherry Orchard of merit comes when everyone’s preparing to lock up the now-sold estate and leave for good, and Ranyevskaya encourages Lopachin to propose to Varya at long last. As is the way in a Chekhov play, the two talk past each other, unable to articulate what they feel or even to stay on topic. The moment passes, with no proposal, only awkwardness.

So it is here. But then Rebecca Lingafelter – whose Varya is more relaxed than the dour taskmaster she’s often played as – stands alone onstage. She looks out at the audience with a tender, disappointed expression, just for a second, before quietly asking, “Does anyone know that song, ‘All the Single Ladies’?” 

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On opening night, at least, there was a pause of several long seconds as we looked back at her, until someone started to tentatively sing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” A few others, now emboldened or just reminded of the tune, joined in, and then so did Lingafelter: “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.”

I am very far from being a Beyonce fan, but seldom have I been so surprised and delighted by a moment in the theater. Like so much about this show, it was an energizing jolt of the sweetly unexpected.

Kind of like a cup of joe with six sugars.

Opening

Lauren Allison and Dave Cole star in “Desperate Measures” at Clackamas Repertory Theatre. Photo: Travis Nodurft

Say you’ve a mind to write a kooky musical comedy and figure that adapting a Shakespeare play would be a strong starting point. That’s reasonable enough, but how you’d settle on  Measure for Measure – although comedic in some respects, one of Shakespeare’s darkest, most disquieting and ethically tangled works – is a mystery we can’t unravel here.

Nonetheless, that seems to have been the method of lyricist/librettist Peter Kellogg and composer David Friedman, the team behind Desperate Measures, opening at Clackamas Rep in a production directed by David Smith-English. But perhaps it’s not so strange if you’re not really trying to make the measurements match. As The New York Times put it in a 2017 article, “textual fidelity does not seem to have kept the authors of the highly adulterated Desperate Measures up nights. … (A)lmost nothing remains of the Measure for Measure text — not the names, not the setting, not even much in the way of moral argument. About the only thing Desperate Measures hangs onto is the premise behind a nun’s being asked to bed a tyrant in order to free her brother.”

Transferring the action to the Arizona Territory in the late 1800s, Kellogg centers his tale on a cowboy called Johnny Blood who is sentenced to death for murder, though he has acted in self-defense. Instead of Shakespeare’s Claudio, the tyrant here is called Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber, which might give you a hint at the tone of things. Then again, a loose adaptation can make for the right fit: when Desperate Measures ran Off -Broadway it earned some enthusiastic reviews and won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.

***

Drag performer BenDeLaCreme presents Ready To Be Committed, a “narrative cabaret show…that blends burlesque, comedy and original music” in a story about the challenges of settling down, finding love, and making it all the way to the altar. 

Closing

You might think that, with a title such as Bad World, the original musical from Crave Theatre would be a dark, sad encounter with the zeitgeist. And in the sense that it deals with a young woman struggling with the aftermath of a sexual assault, darkness and sadness are part of the world in question. And yet, Bad World surges with such resilient, life-affirming energy that you’re likely to feel rather good about the world by the end of it. 

Framed as a survivors support meeting, the show allows its central character, Rose, to look back on an ill-fated sojourn to Paris and the attacks by a pair of friends she meets there, and also to commiserate with others about their experiences. The narrative flow isn’t always as clear as it could be, but both the key scenes and the overall dramatic impact are sharply drawn, as Rose goes through astonishment at her victimization, tangles of anger and self-recrimination, and finally a kind of triumphal defiance of the shadow she’s been carrying. Among the production’s virtues are a cast of spirited voices, and rich arrangements of the melodically and emotionally incisive songs. But the key to it all is a gripping performance by one of the show’s primary creators, Kylie Jenifer Rose, whose bright affect, powerhouse singing and electrifying emotional directness shine brightly in this world or any other.

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Third Rail’s “The Music Man” strikes up the band. Photo: Owen Carey

My apologies. Your humble DramaWatcher hasn’t made it out yet to catch Third Rail Rep’s reduced-cast adaptation of The Music Man, despite my love for the classic Meredith Willson musical and my admiration for this version’s director, Isaac Lamb. But I fully expect it to be terrific, and the testimonials on The Facebook seem to bear that out, with no less a discerning viewer than Ronni Lacroute, one of the area’s most valued theater patrons, calling it “one of the very best pieces of musical theater that I have ever experienced.” 

The flattened stage

Happy Independence Day!

Or alternatively, there’s us, viewed from the outside:

The best line I read this week

“Stephanie Grisham … related a number of examples in her tell-all book published after she left office, and noted that when Mr. Trump descended into rage, his staff resorted to summoning an aide, nicknamed the Music Man, to play favorite show tunes they knew would soothe him, including ‘Memory’ from the Broadway musical ‘Cats.’”

– the horrors of the Trump White House, recounted in an article in The New York Times

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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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