I heard Matthew Penn’s direction of Christopher Durang’s Chekhov play as a collision of energies—almost a rant against reticent Chekhov and his gazing, yearning characters. The play depends pretty much on the performance of Masha, an aging movie actress. Elizabeth Aspenlieder had all that was needed to make this character work. She understood that exaggeration has pathos and kept it just at the tipping point, never falling into caricature, at once balanced and unstrung. This made me pity her character all the more, especially seeing how easily she fell into the folly of a May-December romance that was also ridiculous and sad. Hers was a detailed performance, not that of a slash and burn comedienne, but a detailed piece of acting. She knew how to test the limit. Masha is the central motor of the play, and her collapse into reality saves the other characters. Tod Randolph as sister Sonia had her best moment, and a very fine moment it was, when she hung up the phone and stood in silence, after receiving an invitation from a gentleman, for what must have been the first time These few moments held the audience spellbound, a seemingly lost character with a little salvation- finally. The moment shone like gold. Jim Frangione as brother Vanya had just the a touch of nonchalance with a little genuine warmth sneaking in, the right combination impeccably played. Angel Moore’s Cassandra was just crazy enough to make us believe she was right in her predictions, and she was right. Really wonderful was the performance of Olivia Saccomanno as the young Nina. A kind of shadow of Chekhov’s Nina in The Seagull, this young actress made optimism believable. Mat Leonard as Spike, Masha’s boy-toy, was convincing in a part which could have easily been overplayed.
None of this would work without the deft Durangian weaving of Chekhovian silence with outright farce. G. B. Shaw is reputed to have called out in a loud voice after watching one of the Russian master’s plays, “Life just isn’t that bad.” Durang made us see that this was true.
Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap was cleanly and generously played at the Dorset Playhouse. The old warhorse seemed right at home in the rustic old theatre. There were lots of sounds coming from the actors along with the words they said—grunts, moans—and these were terrifically funny. Anthony Roach as the Inspector (no, not an Inspector he says, just a Detective Sargeant) held the stage expertly. He had the precise arrogance one would expect from an old-fashioned officer of the law, or a new-fashioned one, for that matter. I especially enjoyed the performance of Andrew Weems as Mr. Paravicini. He had enough zinginess and energy in his performance to make me suspect him immediately. Or course I was wrong about that. It is never the one you expect. Why don’t we get this? We seem to fall into the same “mousetrap” every time. I enjoyed the easy humor in the production. After all, this is a serious matter, right? A couple of murders? I heard a lot of laughter in the house, and this was right. Just as in Shakespeare and Company’s Chekhovian farce, the old mystery wears its legacy lightly and kept us amused and confused at the same time.
Let me just say again that the warmth of the old place seemed an apt home for the many theatrical ghosts residing there. I think of it now after the season—dark, closed up, like the end of The Cherry Orchard, and I hope they are all at rest.