The Arts
March 14-20, 2007

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Into the Woods

Luminous 'Cherry Orchard' leads the pack as OSF launches a new 8-month-long season of classic and original plays

By David Templeton

"Everything on Earth comes to an end."

So states the lovable, bear-like non-philosopher Boris Simyonov-Pischik, at the conclusion of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, the best of the four new plays that open the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland. Boris' simple sentiment about the end of things is especially apt this year in Ashland. As OSF prepares to say goodbye to Libby Appel as Artistic Director (the top-dog for 12 years, she'll be back next year as the director of one play), and sweeps off the welcome mat for incoming AD Bill Rauch (who'll be helming Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet later this season and has already instigated a number of fresh changes), it seems that every new show this Spring carries themes of greeting the new, adjusting to the lost, or in the case of The Cherry Orchard, a little of both.

Directed and newly adapted by Appel (working with translator Allison Horsley), The Cherry Orchard is hits the stage of the Angus Bowmer Theatre hauling more than 100 years of musty baggage. The play ranks among Chekhov's most daunting works, and bears the weight of being the playwright/poet's final work (and some argue his finest), while also carrying the scars of generations of poorly-paced, overly-reverential productions. In Appel's hands, the notion of The Cherry Orchard as a past-it's-prime museum piece starts melting away from the show's opening moments, which Appel interjects with a surprising bit of casual fun, and a clever, unexpectedly funny entrance for one of the play's major characters. In everything from the lovely, intelligent acting to the beautiful set (Rachel Hauck), this one is a triumph, both heartbreaking and emotionally thrilling, easily the best work that Appel, as a director, has done in years, a point made clearer in reading the program notes, where the director describes The Cherry Orchard as her first great theatrical love.

Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (Judith-Marie Bergan), after several years spent abroad in Europe, has returned home to her family's ancestral mansion at the edge of once glorious cherry orchard. Deeply in debt, the family has been ordered to put up the orchard and the house for public auction; the best Lyubov and her billiards-entranced brother Leonid Andreyevich Gayev (Richard Howard) can hope for is that a rich relative will buy the property and allow them, with their children and remaining servants, to continue living there. As Lyubov foolishly throws one last party, she wrestles with the suggestion of her long-time neighbor Yermolai Alekseyevich Lopakhin (Armando Duran)—the now-wealthy son of an impoverished former orchard-worker—that she and Leonid avoid the auction-block by agreeing to cut down the orchard themselves, and sell the property in pieces to developers. No mater which course of action the siblings choose, their days among the cherry trees have apparently come to a close. They are the only ones around who have not accepted this, except perhaps for the chronically cash-strapped, reality-avoiding next-door neighbor, Boris (a marvelous Anthony Heald, who some will recognize as one of Hannibal Lecter's most satisfying dinner companions in Silence of the Lambs). Chekhov peoples the play with a large cast of characters: daughters and sons, friends, servants, the children of servants, and in this production, all of them leap to life with performances that avoid cliché and melodrama, remaining interesting by imbuing every action and line-reading with vitality, hope, fear, despair and bushels of proud, beautifully bruised humanity.

While some productions attempt to juice things up by playing the various characters against one another, exploiting the various betrayals and deceptions to turn Chekhov's comedy-drama into some sort of Russian 'Dallas' or 'Dynasty.' Appel is too smart, and too respectful of Chekhov, to allow such easy tactics. In this production, one is a villain, even those whose choices rob others of their greatest hopes. The tone of the play, right up its playful final line (made more-so in this translation) and a devastating auditory grace note (I'll say no more), blends gentle doses of humor and sadness. Appel, in her reworking of the text and her sure-handed direction of the action, underscores everything with a sweet, gradually escalating sense of impending, inescapable doom. But do not think this is not a downer of a play; as heart-rending as Chekhov's swan-song is at times, neither he nor Appel let us forget that for every ending, for every cherry tree chopped down, something new will come along to take its place, that overwhelming grief and loss are usually followed, given enough time, by love and friendship, kindness and hope.

This is a variation of the same theme explored in David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony-nominated Rabbit Hole, directed in Ashland by James Edmondson in OSF's smallish New Theatre. Becca (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and Howie (Bill Geisslinger) are upper-middle-class suburbians, each fighting in their own way to keep their head above water in the wake of their young son's recent death in a car accident. Becca, after 8 months, is systematically clearing the house of reminders of Danny, removing photos from the refrigerator, giving away his toys, his clothes, his dog. Howie, working through his pain through group therapy sessions (which he attends alone), takes a more extraverted approach to his grief, telling total strangers about his son's death, indulging in late-night viewings of Danny's baby videos. Becca's self-absorbed, happy-go-lucky sister, Izzie (Tyler Layton), reacts to her sibling's sorrow mainly by ignoring it, filling the silent spaces in their conversations with casual chatter, wry observations and quick quips about things like the potential stalker status of the Runaway Bunny's mother. Nat (Dee Maaske), the sisters' widowed mom, has her own view of how Becca should be dealing with the loss of her son, having grieved the death of her own son, under very different circumstances. Becca, simultaneously fragile and distant, does not take her mother's suggestions graciously, nor is she happy when Izzie casually announces that she is pregnant. This is a family that is ready to fly apart at the seams, stuck in place and unable to take first step toward healing, with everyone but Izzie either magnifying the relevance of trivial things or minimizing and avoiding the issues that desperately need addressing. When young, guilt-ridden Jason (Jeris Schaefer) appears on the scene—he's the teenage boy who was driving the car that took Danny's life—it is clear that the young man's presence will either be the "first step" the family needs to move ahead, or instead—switching metaphors the way Becca changes subjects—might be the trigger that finally blows everything apart. The cast is excellent, particularly Nordli and Layton, though the comparatively inexperienced Schaefer can't quite match the others in emotional depth and intensity; it's not a fatal flaw, since this is a kid who isn't on the same level as the others, realizing that he's done something bad, but not quite understanding the depth of this family's pain.

There is an exquisite moment late in the play where Becca sits at the table with her mother, and finally allows Nat—who is usually hiding behind a wall of gallows humor—to describe her own grief as having been like a giant brick that gradually grew smaller, until she could finally crawl out from under it, and then carry around.

"Like a brick in your pocket," she says. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there is is: 'Oh, right.' Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes . . . it's not that you like it exactly, but it's what you have instead of your son, so you don't wanna let go of it either."

There is nothing original or groundbreaking in these people's grief, and that is part of the point of the wise and open-hearted script; this mother and father are not exceptional. On the contrary, they are the perfectly normal, they are exactly like millions of others who've walked that same road before them, a point that Edmondson makes clear in the way the family's house is replicated in identical house images painted on the back of the set. The most devastating moments in the play are nothing extraordinary, as when Howie discovers that Becca has accidentally taped over the cassette of Danny taking his first steps; it's a small thing that carries enormous emotional weight, and the scene is beautifully played, with agonizing believability, by Nordli and Geisslinger.

On the subject of the set, designer Richard L. Hay has created a remarkably detailed home for Becca and Howie to live and fall apart in, from the working refrigerator and kitchen sink to the split-level living room, nicely crammed with books, knickknacks, and the little bits and pieces of normal people's lives.

Normal people are nowhere in site in 'On the Razzle,' Tom Stoppard's giddy, confectionary reworking of Johann Nestroy's 'Einen Jux Will er Sich Machen,' already adapted by Thornton Wilder (twice) as 'The Merchant of Yonkers' and 'The Matchmaker,' which eventually evolved into 'Hello Dolly.' Stoppard's verbally supercharged adaptation is like none other, a crazy, silly, crude, impossibly high-spirited farce, nicely staged in the Bowmer Theatre, directed by Laird Williamson with an eye toward dazzling color and visual flash. The set, by Michael Ganio, is worth the price of admission alone, bright, bubbly music-box of a set, with gizmos and whirligigs, screens, scrims and furniture, all spinning and whirring about like a top gone mad.

The story is a classic, a sentiment that's affirmed by the resourceful manservant Melchior (G. Valmont Thomas), whose oft-repeated exclamation of choice is, in fact, "Classic!" Within the bustling Austrian grocery emporium of the self-important Herr Zangler (Tony DeBruno), two secret plots are about to be launched; with Zangler preparing to spend the day in Vienna proposing to his fiancé and appearing in a grocers' parade, Zangler's nice and ward, the virginal Marie (Teri Watts), plan to take advantage of her uncles' absence by eloping with the besotted Sonders (Shad Willingham), whom Zangler opposes as a marital choice due mainly to Sonders' lack of money—and his knack for saying innocent things that sound sexual. Simultaneously, Zangler's Chief Sales Assistant Weinberl (Rex Young) is conspiring with the shop apprentice Christopher (Tasso Feldman) to close up the shop and escape to Vienna for a few hours of tantalizing life experience. That Weinberl and Christopher will accidentally end up on a date with Zangler's fiancé Mmme. Knorr (Suzanne Irving) and her friend Frau Fischer (Teri McMahon), and that all of them will end up at the same restaurant as Zangler, Marie and Sonders, will come as no surprise. The wonderful thing about 'On the Razzle' is not what happens, but how much fun Stoppard has with all of the details, and especially the tangled, witty, pun-filled dialogue.

Early on, when Sonders falls on his face in front of Zangler (who is clad in his underwear in anticipation of the arrival of his new uniform), Sonders ends up clutching at the ankles of the affronted Zangler, who exclaims, "Unhand my foot, sir!"

"But I love your Niece!" replies Sonders.

"My knees?" gasps Zangler. "Oh! My Niece!"

It's that kind of play.

The climax is predictably satisfying, with everything wrapping up neatly—and just in the nick of time. The cast is marvelous at working the jokes, milking the audience for every groan or roar of approval. It's not classy, but it is great fun, and you might find yourself purchasing the script in the lobby, just so you can take a another trip through all of that marvelously silly word-play.

The one-and-only Shakespeare play in Ashland at the moment is 'As You Like It,' with 'The Tempest,' 'Taming of the Shrew,' and the aforementioned 'Romeo and Juliet' all opening on the outdoor Elizabethan stage in June. Unfortunately, As You Like It is the one disappointment in the first batch of shows. Directed by J.R. Sullivan, staged in the Bowmer Theatre, the central idea of this production seems promising at first. Shakespeare's tale of banished noblemen gathering in the Forest of Arden to form a new society based on nature, poetry and love, has been transplanted to 1930's America. The cast is dressed in weathered overcoats and work shirts, and Shakespeare's numerous songs are performed by a series of jug bands and country-tinged singers. Clearly, the producers were aiming for an 'O Brother Where Art Thou' kind of vibe, but they've ended up closer to just, 'O brother!'

'As You Like It' contains some of Shakespeare's most beautiful and famous language, including the beloved, "All the world's a stage" speech. Until this production, I've never noticed how talky this play is, as if Shakespeare strung together a bunch of clever speeches he's written in the privy, tossing in some plot points here and there to hold it together. Blame the pacing, which inches along when it should trot, bounce and scamper, and blame the director, who's allowed half-a-dozen misguided characterizations. The worst is Rosalind, played by the typically solid Miriam A. Laube. As written, Rosalind—the daughter of a banished lord, who follows her beloved Orlando (Danforth Comins) into the woods—is full of wisdom and beauty, the most grounded person in Arden. But Laube plays her as a perky, shallow schoolgirl, all giggly and intoxicated with love. It doesn't work. Jaques, the melancholy nobleman who delivers the aforementioned "All the World" speech. As played by Robert Sicular, is not melancholy so much as he is irritable and bored and kind of grouchy, which takes the fun and pathos out of character. We are supposed to like Jaques and wish for him to cheer up, but in this production, his moments off stage come as a relief. Similar bad choice render much of the cast of characters unlikable, and if there is no one to like, all we are left with is a pretty set full of crabby rich people.

The set by William Bloodgood is otherworldly in an It's a Small World or The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh mode, with the forest suggested by gliding panels of two-dimensional painted-wood leaf groupings that are added to as the play progresses. There are pleasures to be had in this production, and some surprises. The Act I wrestling match between Oliver and the hit-man/wrestler Charles (Todd Bjurstrom) is extremely well-staged, and the climactic reunion between all the various lost relatives is effectively moving. Still, compared to the vibrant energy and depth of the other three shows, the overall vibe of this 'As You Like It' is as flat and unconvincing as those wooden cut-out leaves hanging from the rafters.

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