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Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008

Laugh, Dance, Spend

Theater Review

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One can expect a little extra staginess from college productions-fake beards and so on. The test is whether we can see through the artifice into the virtual reality conjured by the play. With Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, in Paul Schmidt's workable translation, Marquette University Theatre hits the mark. They could probably never have imagined, when they scheduled this drama of bankruptcy, foreclosure and societal transformation, that the play would resonate in the nonfictional world with such an unsettling echo.

There's a hint of musty reverence in their great attention to period details. Nevertheless, we are drawn into this marvelous picture of a family-and by extension, a universe-in crisis. These are bright, passionate characters, "exquisitely flawed," in the words of director Maureen Kilmurry. Far from somber Chekhovian stereotypes, their smiles belie their deep denial, as might many a clan of investment bankers in our own very recent past. It seems so much easier to laugh, dance and spend, pretending that the bill will never come. But the mysterious sound we hear near the end of Act Two is the plaintive chord of an age, for better or worse, ending.

Jennifer Shine, as the drama queen materfamilias, commands the stage with great charisma, generating a field of magnetism. Cute as a muffin, Joe Picchetti charms with his oddball squeaky-shoe solo. Genevieve Grdina plays the cross-dressing ventriloquist with fine dry restraint. Bonnie Auguston and Bethany Ligocki are both radiant as ingénues from opposite ends of the social scale, and Alec Barniskis gives a two-minute drama of his own as a man momentarily misplacing his money.

They could have more boldly plumbed the characters' dark sides: We can scarcely see the capitalist's practical brutality; the intellectual is idealistic, but we never get a whiff of the purges and gulags to come.

Chekhov has influenced everyone from Hemingway to Robert Altman. By opening a window to the foibles of his times, he offers us a fleshy chronicle in which we can read our own. The trees are painted crudely, but they fall so beautifully.

The Cherry Orchard runs through Nov. 23.

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