Tuesday, February 23, 2010

AUM: "The Cherry Orchard"

Theatre AUM's season continues with a lively ensemble performance of American playwright David Mamet's spot-on adaptation of Anton Chekhov's masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard. Mamet's trademark concise language and attention to the comic nuances of serious situations is true to the spirit of the original Russian play, making its down-at-heels aristocrats and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie more credible than they have been in a long time. No more a dusty relic, this version of The Cherry Orchard is a truthful and provocative analysis of very pertinent modern dilemmas.

Mike Winkelman directs his cast with a keen understanding of various eccentricities of individual personalities -- the self-centeredness of some, the naivete of others, and the fact that many of us talk a lot without holding meaningful conversations; in fact, it is easier sometimes to avoid uncomfortable problems than to face them. We are nonetheless drawn into their lives through the flexibility of the individual voices and through Winkelman's wizzardly choreographic vocal and physical style.

In 1904, as the middle class is overtaking the aristocracy in her homeland, Mme. Ranevskaya [Rebecca Dennard is solidly making her mark as one of local theatre's strongest actors in the role] returns from France to her home in Russia on the brink of bankruptcy. Steeped in the class restrictions of her day, she is both unwilling and incapable of comprehending her situation, and does everything to avoid it until it is too late.

She is surrounded by her younger daughter Anya [Ariel Taunton plays her as a charming yet petulant adolescent], and various hangers-on in her retinue. At home, her older daughter Varya [Vivian Walker's prim behavior belies an undercurrent of passion] and her brother Leonid [Lee Bridges's erratic behavior & befuddled demeanor can speak volumes] have been keeping the house and estate in order during Ranevskaya's absence; yet neither of them has the ability to directly face the problem at hand.

Greeting them on their return is Lopakhin, a former serf on the estate who has come up through the ranks into the middle-class; he advises her to sell off the estate and cut down the celebrated cherry orchard on it to make room for holiday cottages and earn a steady income. In the role, David Wilson's practicality is ignored as incomprehensible, partly because he is their social inferior, and partly due to his stumbling behavior -- a mix of awe in his new-found social place, his admiration of Ranevskaya who had treated him kindly when he was a child, and his inability to break the social codes and declare his love for Varya.

The social boundaries keep everyone locked in place, even as the new order is being established; it is hard for all social ranks to adjust to the inevitable changes in their lives. When Lopakhin buys the estate at an auction, that is the last straw; the social order can never be the same, yet he is prevented from taking his place among the aristocrats.

Both serious and absurdly comical in subject matter, Winkelman has his actors speak more at each other than to each other -- each living in his or her own world for most of their stage time -- and much like today, most attempts at direct communication fail.

Val Winkelman's exquisite costumes are among the best ever produced for Theatre AUM. Her attention to period detail of shape and fabric, and her choice of colors and styles perfectly suited to the ages and personalities of each character completely support the director's vision and the playwright's intentions. Stunning.

Even the old servant Firs [Bill Nowell is masterful in this role], the last remnant of the devoted servant, lives so much in the past; he is left in a vacant house at the end of the play, ignored and forgotten while the cherry orchard is being chopped down.