c/o the grove

Local Arts Reviews


c/o the grove: Chekhovian Loss on the Brazos

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, through Nov. 24

Running Time: 3 hrs

The theatre department at St. Edward's University has pulled off another amazing effort of big, collaborative, ensemble theatre in this new play written and directed by J. Ed Araiza (who worked similar magic with last season's The Medea Stories). Loosely based on Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Araiza's version is set in Central Texas, where pecans take the part of cherry trees, but the backward looking landowning class and revolutionary peasants are fairly unchanged in this modern tale of love and loss. Araiza's SITI influences pepper the production, where pop culture references and mixed media abound, not always to the play's benefit. At times the dialogue drags a bit, resembling those staid and slow-moving standard treatments of Chekhov. But the overall strength of this production is in the storytelling and, in particular, the fine performances of this young cast, fresh and focused throughout the various twists and turns of Araiza's play.

As the returning Miss Wanda, Andrea Skola strikes a nice balance between to-the-manor-born maturity and self-inflicted naiveté. The stubborn, blond, former debutante sports the trappings of her gentrified upbringing, but it's all gone now, and Skola is adept at clinging, rather Blanche DuBois-like, to a faded dream of earlier happiness, unwilling to make the changes that might save her homestead from the auction block. Gabriel Luna's Villa -- the made-good Latino who grew up on Miss Wanda's land and the son of a peasant -- makes a fine adversary-cum-friend. He has ideas for the future that might save the family manse but can't wait much longer for his friends and former masters to make up their minds. Luna is adept at switching between Villa's decisiveness in matters of business and the character's minor weirdness about gadgets and time, as well as his more debilitating inability to come to terms with his feelings for Miss Wanda's daughter, Marya, played sharply by Arlene Cerda. Brent Werzner makes a great faded football star out of Wanda's brother, Stephen F., who still lives on the property, is a bit of a drunk, and spouts Shakespearean verse for all occasions, which jars more than it supports the character, unfortunately. Dean Stafford is a hoot as the guitar-strumming local yokel Jimmy James. His breakout Buddy Holly croonings don't alleviate poor Jimmy's unrequited love. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of both unrequited loves among the denizens of the foundering estate and the impressive talents on display by this populous ensemble in a story that Araiza has moved quite seamlessly to our modern milieu.

The story is so well conceived and translated, in fact, that the production could do quite well without the video projections and the city-slick pop-culture, breakout material. It may be a hallmark of SITI style, but it's mostly distracting here, unlike, say, Jimmy James' in-house band playing the ranch dance in the third act or the offstage live Tejano songs from the wings, both instances where the popular idiom fits quite neatly within the onstage world. Perhaps in another venue, where the more distancing elements might have more space and technical support, the film and big-stage production numbers would crown the narrative with their tangential explosiveness. Ultimately, though, the odd sidebars and jarring musical asides don't hamper the soundness of the story, where the work of the cast -- so committed, present, and disciplined throughout -- makes c/o the grove a strong piece of theatre.

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c / o the grove, St. Edward's University, J. Ed Araiza, The Medea Stories, Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, SITI, Andrea Skola, Gabriel Luna, Arlene Cerda, Brent Werzner, Dean Stafford

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