Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Cherry Orchard by Chekov, University of Texas, September 16 - 24

The Cherry Orchard, University of Texas

What was Brant Pope thinking?

That's not just a curmudgeonly expostulation. AustinLiveTheatre has an affection for alt-versions, augmentations and re-interpretations of the classics. Relatively small audiences have benefited from the Shakespeare riffs of the Wondrous Strange Players, their antecedent Austin Drama Club and the annual inventions of the Weird Sisters Theatre Collective. ALT applauds the current Hedda roll -- two modern language versions of Hedda Gabler from Palindrome Theatre, Tutto's Heddatron and The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, opening next week at St. Ed's Mary Moody Northen Theatre.

For a first major outing with UT, its newly-selected chair for theatre and drama Brant Pope stages a Cherry Orchard by Chekhov that is disappointing and puzzling. Not for lack of talent, certainly, for he has three experienced teachers of theatre onstage, two of them long-standing members of Actors Equity, working with the latest class of gifted MFA Theatre students.

How about that vision thing? This production resembles exactly what it is: an acting workshop in a black box theatre. Pope double-casts most of the roles, so this second weekend's offering will be significantly different from that of the first. Lovely Lauren Lane, astute Lucien Douglas and slyly dogged Brooks Barr provide the rebounding posts for the pinball machine onstage.

The director situates the action in a nowhere that's only vaguely associated with Chekhov's world. Props and costumes appear to have been pulled at random out of the dusty lockers in the back of the warehouse. A Samsonite suitcase; the clunky metal-banded wristwatch worn by Lopakhin; a confusion of times and styles. In the opening scene Mykal Monroe as the serving girl Dunyasha wears a tight-fitting eccentric black outfit that would be appropriate for Sixth Street bar-hopping after midnight. The four acts of The Cherry Orchard occur at different times from May through September but most of these characters don't change their costumes once, except by draping a shawl or changing a hat.

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