The Column Online



by Anton Chekhov
a New American English adaptation of Julius West’s translation by Ben Schroth

The Classics Theatre Project

Directed by Joey Folsom
Executive Director – Gregory Patterson
Assistant Director – Jordan Sanchez
Production Manager & Stage Manager – N. Ryan McBride
Costume Designer – Joey Folsom

Taylor Harris – Lopakin
Rachel Reininger – Dunyasha
Matthew Eitzen – Yepikodov
Courtney Mentzel – Miss Anna
Gretchen Hahn – Miss Barbara
Emily Scott Banks – Mrs. Lyubov
Stan Graner – Leon Gaev
James Hansen Prince – Boris Pishtchik
Dean Wray – Yasha
Francis Fuselier – Firz
Mary Margaret Pyeatt – Charlotte
Sterling Gafford – Peter Trofimov

Reviewed Performance: 6/23/2018

Reviewed by Ryan Maffei, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

There’s an admirable hint of rebellion in kicking off a putatively classicist theatre company with the playwright who thrust theatre into the modern age. But it’s “The Classics Theatre Project”, not “The Classical Theatre Project”, and in an elegant if enigmatic rollout, this conspicuously auspicious new collective have emphasized making connections to the new. One assumes “conventions be damned” follows this, but one is hopeful. Still, their mission statements have had a noncommittal vibe, that while alluringly mysterious (cf. Trofimov) frees up attention to the fact that a lot of people are itching for a throwback for the wrong reasons in the days of you know who. Few golden ages came untarnished.

But the second-most famous playwright of all is one of the most liberated and revolutionary because his premises – that’s all they were, and he just let them unfold – resisted formal habits as a formal habit. Characters speak as if distracted (whether or not in the throes of some actual medical situation), have near misses while disengagedly stumbling on connections. They’re petri dishes of passions and fallacies, collisions of contradictory personalities, and the companies behind their productions are no different – co-conspiring chemistries operating under assigned relationships. There’s bound to be discord, conflict, interlocking impulses, unresolved outcomes. It’s all part of the randomness of life. It’s why it’s beautiful.

It’s also why it’s most effectively complemented by natural acting styles. It’s worked into the text, in the weird repetitions and all the realistic listening past each other. That’s why it can be unsettling to see blooms of carefully choreographed comedy beside the (excuse me) traditional vérité. Mary Margaret Pyeatt weaves her Charlotte seamlessly into the fabric of imaginary reality, German accent and all, and others acquit ably to the duality of a show the author insisted was a farce. Best are James Hansen Prince as voracious, unchecked Pishtchik, and the crown jewel, Emily Scott Banks, whose flawless instincts as key player Lyubov elicit laughs from appreciation alone. But did you guess drama’s where she soars?

Folsom and his fellow architects have engineered a kind of cuckoo clock Cherry Orchard, a garden of chorographical delights, with no inspired bit of business left unwoven in. Some actors dutifully apply their talents to maintaining this tone, which can seem incongruously incorporated – Matthew Eitzen’s adorable Yepikidov, or Rachel Reininger’s live-wire Dunyasha. But the laughs are solid; this production is a pie in Stanislavski’s eye. Though efforts to conform to this humor confuse otherwise compelling and probing performances, such as Dean Wray’s elusive scoundrel Yasha, Sterling Gafford’s charismatic yet fatally neurotic Trofimov, or Gretchen Hahn’s thoughtful, affecting take on the long-suffering Barbara.

So the cream of the show is when the hubbub clears away, and on a rustic, minimalistic, atmospheric spare brown set, one or two actors let a gorgeous moment just unfurl as it was written – or, rather, as Ben Schroth has pithily and lyrically interpreted it. Most of these involve Banks, whose Mrs. Lyubov is a restrained and fluid series of deftly executed nuances. This show can overhit, but she never falters, and when a partner drags her into an outburst of whatever magnitude, she’s game to make it classic (that word again). Gafford and Hahn do particularly well with her, as does Taylor Harris, whose volatile and poignant Lopakin has the most intriguing chemistry with Lyubov. Francis Fuselier burns it down alone.

The Cherry Orchard is unmistakably correspondent with our anxious present, an explicitly political and transitional time marked by groups growing tired of class theatrics. There was something to that sense of concord Saturday night, no matter how complicated its analogs within the action, and no matter how many of us in the audience cared about the traditions the classics stand for (or voted for Trump). When characters talk of the seismic social changes, in all their excitement and terror, even responding to it incompletely like Courtney Mentzel’s Anna or obstinately like Stan Graner’s Gaev, the shared sense of crazy transition complexifies and intensifies the impact of beautifully played, staged and written work.

The lighting is ghostly and functional, as is music, and the best-of-what’s-around costumes cannily blur one’s ability to place the action in history. The whole look of the show is beautiful and simple, like a kind of hollowed-out space in which familiar action is recalled, as if in a dream. That barely tangible distortion of reality in the presentation justifies moments that feel more stylized than seems appropriate. After all, why should we burden such a promising and beautifully curated new theatre project with defining, and confining to, whatever a “classic” entails? Let them explore it for us. Every classic, after all, is a reaction to a totally different time – though as this one reminds, sometimes the echoes are louder than others.

The Classics Theatre Project presents

Trinity River Arts Center
runs through July 14, 2018