Classic Comeback

Time was, the great repertoire of classical drama was the mainstay of established New York City and regional theaters. But take a quick look at the season lineups at the nation's major theaters, and you'll be hard pressed to spot even a smattering of classics. What happened to the great...
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Time was, the great repertoire of classical drama was the mainstay of established New York City and regional theaters. But take a quick look at the season lineups at the nation's major theaters, and you'll be hard pressed to spot even a smattering of classics. What happened to the great plays of yore? Too expensive? Too difficult? Probably. And yet, the classics live on in tiny theater companies. The New York Shakespeare Festival and Lincoln Center may have turned away from a strong commitment to the classics, but minicompanies like the Pearl and the Jean Cocteau Rep continue to carry the classical banner in New York. Around here, the situation is much the same. If you're longing for Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Ibsen, and the like, you won't find them at Florida Stage, the Caldwell, or the Coconut Grove Playhouse. But you will find the classics consistently produced at the smaller companies, especially in Broward County, which has become the region's new hotbed for classical theater.

One new enterprise is the outdoor Hollywood Shakespeare Festival and Renaissance Fair, which premiered last week, despite rainy weather. The two-week event is produced by Jerry Waxman and the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre at Young Circle Park in Hollywood through February 16. The project is nothing if not ambitious, offering not one Shakespeare but two -- The Merry Wives of Windsor and Macbeth -- and in repertory to boot. A number of notable local actors are in the casts, including Linda Bernhard, Merry Jo Pitasi, Sheila Allen, Dave Corey, and Eileen Simmons. Along with the main-stage productions, the festival includes stage combat demonstrations and other performances, while the fair provides food, drink, and a costumed Renaissance atmosphere.

Another new company dedicated to the classics is On the Boards Theater, now in its inaugural season in Dania Beach. The husband/wife team of Allan Michael Grosman and Linda Wells-Grosman head a shoestring operation in a bare-bones, black-box performance space. On the Boards may be short on resources but not on vision: Its initial play schedule includes three Shakespeare plays, plus Molière, Arthur Miller, and William Congreve. The current production is Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, a challenging, thoughtful play that's packed with juicy roles, each of which presents formidable acting challenges.

The story is complex, as each of 11 characters has a tale to tell. The setting is a country estate in pre-revolutionary Russia, the vacation home of Irina Arkadina, a famous fading stage actress. Her brooding adult son, Konstantin, awaits her arrival there with her latest beau, a popular fiction writer, Boris Trigorin. Konstantin, who simmers in a toxic stew of jealousy, depression, and artistic desire, eagerly readies an amateur staging of a play he has just written. He has cast a lovely neighbor girl, Nina, who has a crush on him, in the leading role. Meanwhile, another girl, Masha, the daughter of the estate manager, secretly pines for Konstantin. Arkadina arrives with Trigorin to watch the play, which is a complete disaster. But Trigorin finds Nina intriguing, an interest that leads to mutual infatuation. By the time Arkadina prepares to return to Moscow, Trigorin has begun an affair with Nina that leads to heartache, betrayal, and worse. But plot is not the point with Chekhov. His characters are so rich and his ideas remain so poignant that the complex story lines serve chiefly as backdrop to the complex personal struggles these characters endure.

On the Boards is fortunate to have Marjorie O'Neill-Butler as director. Her staging is simple -- with a big cast and limited space, it has to be -- but very clear. Despite a lack of production support (a shaky sound design, only a few lights, and a not-so-grand set), the huge challenges of working with a new company, and one of the most difficult dramatic texts possible, O'Neill-Butler has pulled off something of a miracle. Chekhov's play, his characters, and his ideas come to life, with rich strands of comedy, pathos, and irony woven through the production.

As must be expected with a new, no-budget company, the acting here is decidedly uneven. Some performers simply lack the experience and resources to pull off the extreme emotional challenges of their roles, acting on their lines and with their faces rather than offering truly felt, fully realized characterizations. But others do well indeed. The Grosmans carry on the age-old tradition of actor/managers by appearing here in major roles. Allan Michael Grosman offers an interesting take on Trigorin, a role that's often played as a matinee idol gone to seed. Grosman opts for a more unusual tack -- his Trigorin is not a dashing star but a thoroughly pedestrian man who's painfully aware that he's a hack. In her early scenes, Linda Wells-Grosman seems less effective as Arkadina, but she really turns up the heat in the famous, difficult scene where she begs Trigorin not to leave her. In most productions of this play, this scene seems to be over before it begins -- Arkadina pleads, but you know it's all irrelevant: Trigorin has already made up his mind about what he's going to do. But here, Wells-Grosman is so emotionally naked, it's not only uncomfortable to watch; it's completely uncertain what will happen next. Once this scene occurs, the production steps up to a higher level of intensity. Another standout is Camille Carida as the embittered Masha, a supporting role that Carida plays with unwavering commitment and clarity. Even in the large cast scenes where Masha is a silent on- looker, Carida gives Masha a seething emotional life.

Is this the definitive production of The Seagull in South Florida? By no means, but it's a success nevertheless. If a company such as this, with next-to-no resources and no experience working together, can put up such competent work, what does it say about the better-off, established companies that have avoided the great plays? Can it be that On the Boards simply better understands and values the classic texts than others? The answer is probably no, but there is one thing this company has that's not at all common in the arts nowadays: courage.

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