Eclectic Pond Theatre Company specializes in Shakespeare. But I’m glad to see it expand its horizons a bit into the works of another great writer but one less frequently produced here—Anton Chekhov.
Have no concern, though, if you are new to the playwright’s work. Like any good production of Chekhov, EPTC’s “The Cherry Orchard” (through June 20 at the Basile Opera Center) is grounded in the core humanity of its large cast of characters.
The central conflict is made very clear early on. Financial troubles are forcing an aristocratic family’s estate—including the title orchard—to be put on the auction block. Nobody except the family lawyer, a former surf, is willing to do much of anything to save it, although they are willing to rhapsodize about what’s being lost even as they deny it could happen.
Outlining the multiple relationships here would run the risk of coming across like a soap opera enthusiast trying to bring a newcomer up to speed. No need to scare you off by doing that. Trust that it may take a little while to sort out their relationships, but that’s part of the pleasure (although, admittedly, I needed to go to the web after the show to be reminded of how the magician/ventriloquist Charlotta fit in).
For the most part, it's all well managed by Director Michael Hosp, Scenic Designer Jeff Martin, and music director Paige Scott, who have come up with some smart solutions for a challenging former-sanctuary space, with a particularly creative and counter-intuitive set of music played during intermission.
The production is at its strongest during intimate moments between characters, particularly the core trio of mother and daughters. Christa Shoot Grimmer finds a strong mix of grief and denial as Liubov, without ever becoming maudlin. Frankie Bolda captures the confusion and joy of youthful Anya. And Jessica Strauss makes the serious-minded sister, Varya, a model of the ache that comes with responsibility. It weakens, though, when it pushes too hard to try to disprove the mistaken notion that Chekhov is dry and humorless. It doesn’t quite trust enough that the humor will come from the characters without a need to force it on them. And, with Chekhov, patience—and a bit more leisurely of a pace—is a virtue.
Still “The Cherry Orchard” not only left me hoping that Eclectic Pond will attempt other Chekhov works, but also that it will consider Shaw, Moliere, and others who don’t get a fair shake in these parts. Why should college theater programs have all the fun?
There was a collegiate energy to Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project’s production of “Jason (and Medea),” which played the IndyFringe Theatre (closed June 14).
Offering a take on the classical story of Jason (of Argonaut fame) and Medea (of horrifying crime fame) as filtered through Chicago-based playwright Jessica Shoemaker, it started ritualistically, with the quartet of actors silently seeming to cleanse the space, and it included music composed and played by the always visible Bonnie Whiting, a wonderful artistic choice that helped unify the show.
It’s an ambitious play, attempting to shed new light on the epic tale through commonplace dialogue mixed with science and contemporary references. More powerful, perhaps, if it had spent more time digging deeper into its core relationship—which often feels overtly contemporary and conventional, the production here benefited from Kelsey Leigh Miller as Medea. At first seeming like a blank slate, her impenetrability fascinated rather than repelled. At least until the horror kicked in.
Wisdom Tooth's schedule—and what I’ve seen on stage—speak to creative passion rather than marketability driving its choices. As it gets increasingly difficult for professional theater companies to offer shows that don’t have an obvious sizable core audience, such a lineup alone is worthy of applause. I look forward to seeing more work from both companies.