Monday, April 29, 2013

Ten Chimneys—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

Life on the Stage
This dramatic comedy by Jeffrey Hatcher is directed by Artists Rep’s new Artistic Director, Dàmaso Rodriguez.  It plays through May 26th at its location on SW Alder St. & 16th Ave.  For more information contact them at or call 503-241-1278.

Stage “royalty” has been around since the inception of the Broadway theatre.  Going back to the Civil War, there was Edwin Booth and later Helen Hayes, the Barrymores (exemplified in the play, The Royal Family) and, of course, Lunt and Fontanne, among them.  This story concentrates on a period of time, mostly in the late 30’s, when they were mounting a production of Chekov’s The Seagull.  And it also includes such luminaries from that period as the actor, Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) and theatre actor/teacher, Uta Hagen (her book, Respect for Acting, is considered one of the bibles of the theatre world).

The play shifts from delving into the private lives of Alfred Lunt (Michael Mendelson) and Lynn Fontanne (Linda Alper), to their stage incarnations, as well, and the creative process.  The story takes place at their estate in Wisconsin, Ten Chimneys.  In the cast are Mr. Greenstreet (Todd Van Voris), pre-film, and Ms. Hagen (Abby Wilde), early in her career.  Also living at their estate are his over-bearing mother, Hattie (JoAnn Johnson); his pool-shark, half-brother, Carl (Chris Harder); and his frustrated, half-sister, Louise (Sarah Lucht).

All seems well in the first scene, which is a bit of fluff, but as the plot flows forward, so do the trenches deepen, as things become…complicated, contrived and corrosive.  It seems that Louise, engaged in an unhappy marriage, has talents that have always been overlooked in the family, as she is relegated to the job of “baking muffins,” which would be slightly burnt, of course, but we’ll eat them anyway because “we love her.”  The pool shark brother is a bit of a ne’er-do-well and up to his cue-sticks in debt.  And the mother, having delusions of grandeur, proceeds to carve her slab in this deluded dream, as if she were still in charge, although now her stately manor used to be the “chicken coop.”

Into this well-seasoned stew are added the portly Sydney, whose wife has been incarcerated in an institution for the insane for a number of years and Uta, who seems to have dreams of becoming a star, no matter what the cost to personal lives.  Alfred, who had possibly had an affair with a college “room-mate,” as some indiscreet letters have appeared, is distracted.  And Lynn, aware of the attraction between her husband and the neophyte, alternately explodes, then consoles the volatile parties.  Life imitating art or vice versa?  Or, both?

Into this mix also are some of the basics of theatre and the rehearsal process.  They are constantly rehearsing so that the lines become automatic and real, like a second skin.  And if they miss so much as a word, they must start the whole scene over again.  This is not the only way of creating a play, but it is their way.  The constant immersion in the creative process and their stage lives might seem foreign to a casual observer.  But it may be essential to the artist.

This idea is explored in its simplest form in Vonnegut’s, Who Am I This Time?  And this may be, in part, the theme of Hatcher’s play.  One’s life onstage may be the reality, and the life outside it, the illusion.  To extend that thought further, aren’t we all, in a way, actors.  Perhaps not in the creative sense but “All the world’s a stage…,” as expressed by the Bard.  We “act” differently when we are with family, with friends, with co-workers, with strangers, etc.  And, if true, then the play speaks to all of us, not just artists.

The Director, Mr. Rodriguez, has wisely chosen not to have the actors try to imitate the famous personages, but simply enact the character.  He understands the rhythms of the play and has a superb cast that complements this.  Mendelson portrays all the various flavors and beats of this complex person, Lunt, and Alper is equally fine as Fontanne, raging to heights as the wronged woman, then to calmer depths, as the helpmate to the artist.  And Johnson is extraordinary as the mother, running the gamut from having us hate her, to feeling sorry for her.  A super performance by a seasoned veteran.

Wilde, as Uta, is wonderful in her ability to keep her motives hidden, as she traverses the slippery slope between, perhaps, romancing her way to the top, or becoming a dutiful actress, willing to learn and observe.  You can see her thinking, considering choices as she navigates her course.  Harder and Lucht portray the siblings of this famous couple, convincingly showing us the ups and downs of reaping the gains f the trip, but constantly riding in the back seat.

The set, by Larry Larsen, is open, allowing the actors plenty of room to emote and is versatile, as it magically changes from an exterior to interior by the second act.  A beauty.  This is a winning example of what the future may hold for ART under the reins of the capable director, Mr. Rodriguez.  Bravo!

I recommend this production.  If you do choose to go see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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