Capsule Stage Reviews: April 16, 2015

The Cherry Orchard Recently Houston's theater scene has been blessed with some very fine Chekhov knockoffs: last season's superlative rendition of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at the Alley; and, recently, a regional premiere, also superlatively produced, of Aaron Posner's stupid f*****g bird from Stages Rep. Currently at Catastrophic Theatre, Mickle Maher's The Hunchback Variations bases its absurdist filigree upon a Chekhov stage direction. Now, thanks to Classical Theatre Company, we have the real thing, Anton Chekhov's last masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard (1904). And I must say, another super production. Orchard could be a primer of all things Chekhov, a comedy of inertia. The provincial estate of brother and sister Gaev and Lubov (Mark Roberts and Celeste Roberts), who recently arrived home after having lived in Paris for five years, is to be sold to pay the family's debts. Businessman Lopakhin (Kregg Dailey), son of the family's former serfs, who's swiftly risen into the middle class, advises them to sell off the large cherry orchard for development to stave off the auction. No one heeds his dire predictions. Sell their beloved orchard, the symbol of youth, frivolous happiness and days gone by? Are you crazy? There must be some other way to get the mortgage money. Their solutions, when they consider any, are impractical or delusional or will take too much time. Lubov can't think of that right now anyway; she's trying, but not too hard, to forget her no-account Parisian lover. Naive daughter Anya (Shunté Lofton) seems smitten with rumpled, perpetual student Trofimov (Matthew Keenan), former tutor, whose ardent spouting of coming change in Russia does nothing to spur him forward; older daughter Varya (Erin Kidwell), staunch housekeeper of the estate, pines for the marriage proposal from work-obsessed Lopahkin; clerk and stumblebum Epikhodov (Jeff McMorrough) loves maid Dunyasha (Lindsay Ehrhardt), who fancies herself a lady, but she's more in love with being in love, and now there's snooty valet Yasha (Ben McLaughlin) to tempt. Old neighbor Pischin (Carl Masterson) is in the same financial straits, always scrambling for money; governess Charlotta (Elizabeth Keel), munching on cucumbers, performs magic tricks to entertain and chills everyone with her "I am alone, all alone" routine. And then there's Firs (Charles Krohn), the family's ancient footman, who treats his employers, especially Gaev, like wayward children, fussing after them about forgetting overcoats and galoshes. Chekhov's ensemble is rich, rich at cross purposes and rich in talking about other things than what's being discussed, or what should be discussed. The fate of the family is sad and inevitable, but it's also deserved. Bathed in a comic irony that warms, there are plenty of laughs at their futile attempts to circumvent what's right in front of them. There are no villains in Orchard, nor heroes. Under Classical's artistic director, John Johnston, the comedy has a lively flow, a real heartbeat. We're enrapt by the ensemble. All are magnificent. Through April 26. 4617 Montrose, 713-963-9665. — DLG

The Hunchback Variations A long table on a raised platform. A pitcher of water and two glasses. Two chairs and two microphones. Looks like an interview setting, or a panel discussion. What's odd is that one of the chairs is significantly lower, as is its mike. Who lumbers down the aisle but Quasimodo (Greg Dean), carrying three heavy suitcases. We know the immortal bell-ringer instantly for he looks a lot like Lon Chaney or Charles Laughton from their movies. Misshapen and grotesquely deformed, breathing heavily, he lugs the suitcases onto the stage and unpacks the contents. A toy piano, a baby violin, a small dinner bell, a jar of coins, silverware, a dog's squeaky toy, a bicycle horn, a can of Reddi-Wip, a file folder. He places each object neatly in front of him. His wayward tongue darts out between his hideous teeth, a frog never to be kissed. He's endearingly earnest and not at all happy to be here, eyeing us suspiciously with his one good eye. As Quasimodo sets up his space, Beethoven (Jeff Miller) saunters in from the opposite side, all preppy professor, giving us a hearty wave hello. He's happy to be here, satisfied even. Unlike Quasimodo in his medieval getup, the great composer is dressed in contemporary mufti, and we'll find out soon enough who he is when he introduces himself, his discussion panel partner and why they're here. They are here to discuss sound, one very specific sound effect, or as Beethoven explains, "an impetuous sound, an impossible sound." This would be Anton Chekhov's unusual stage direction in The Cherry Orchard. "Suddenly a distant sound is heard coming as if out of the sky, like the sound of a string snapping, slowly and sadly dying away." What is this sound? What does it mean? Channeling Monty Python at its best, Mickle Maher sets up his absurd premise with pinprick accuracy: two deaf guys talking about sound. A series of blackout sketches, a set of variations, each skit begins exactly the same. Beethoven welcomes us with the premise at hand, then introduces Quasimodo, who reads his introductory remarks from 3x5 cards, then makes a noise using one of the props — he rattles the coin jar, squeezes the pet toy or toots the New Year's Eve blowout. "That is not the sound," Beethoven patiently qualifies. With either exasperation or futility, Beethoven says goodnight to us, the lights black out then immediately come back on, and the next variation begins. The mood is blackly comic; the laughs come from the silly juxtaposition of the whole affair: Just watching Dean's dour, messy hunchback make inappropriate noises next to Miller's prissy intellectual is funny in itself. The play veers into more cosmic territory when Beethoven confesses that he hasn't even read The Cherry Orchard. His change is perceptible. His optimism from the opening variations swiftly turns sour. Quasimodo keeps the same pessimism he started with: "Our collaboration was doomed no matter what the external circumstances." Dean and Miller are exceptionally good. Dean (director and scenic designer, also) has an easier time of it, since he gets fullness of makeup to assist his character's bleak world view — what actor doesn't relish playing such a timeless iconic creature? Dean has the showier role and he runs with it, but it's Miller who carries the heart of the play. His rumpled Beethoven is not the titanic fury from music history, belching smoke and fire, but a prickly egotist who's hamstrung by his inability to create this one particular sound that Chekhov demands. His ego takes a beating. Along with the two fine actors, what is most impressive is the haunting sound design by John Peeples. It whispers in the background, hovers with snatches of organ music, string quartets and solo instruments, all New Agey and nebulous. Absolutely perfect. It lifts the play to another, higher plain. Unfortunately, we have to fill in a lot of blanks. Maher tantalizes with swirling bits about the nature of creativity, grief, the endless universe, the physical world, the theater. Even Emily Dickinson gets a shoutout. This very short play — no more than 40 minutes — is both crystal and opaque. Images can be concrete and hard, then shattered by hazy contemplation and high-flying concepts. It's certainly unique, a thinking man's vaudeville. You won't soon forget it. But it leaves you wanting more, like maybe a second act to explain this odd, spiky little intro. Through May 2. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway at Naylor. 713-522-2723. — DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman