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"Cerceau" is a challenging search for cultural connection.

By Margaret Regan

JUNE 1, 1998:  IN THE CHEKHOV play The Cherry Orchard (1904), a set of sighing Russians wonder what they should do with their old country place. If they sell it, or if they lose it, will their sense of identity and community disappear along with the orchard and the house?

Eighty years later, at a moment when the Soviet Union was creaking into glasnost, Viktor Slavkin wrote Cerceau. Brought to the stage of the Cabaret Theatre by the respected Tucson Art Theatre, Cerceau has been called the modern-day Cherry Orchard. The newer play also has a set of characters idling in a country house. They, too, are hobbled by vague longings, and they puzzle over life's meaning in long talks and in strange games. But living as they do at the end of the Soviet century, their connection to the land is radically different from that of their Cherry Orchard forebears.

They're jaded urbanites who ricochet around the modern metropolis in lonely trajectories. The country house they occupy for a weekend has no history for them. It's just a dacha, or vacation home, that one of them, Rooster (David Greenwood), has unexpectedly inherited from a great-aunt he hardly knew. On a prosaic level, the house has provided them with a respite from the city, but (as in The Cherry Orchard) the country place also looms as a heady symbol of the older values of community and connection.

As in a classic English country house mystery, the characters don't know each other; nor do they know why Rooster has invited them to join him for his first weekend in the house. There's his first love from long ago, the bitter Valyusha (AnnaMarie Greenwood); his boss, Vladimir Ivanovich (Patrick Baliani), an engineer who's contemptuous of the serfs from whom he's descended; his affable friend Pasha (Thomas Wentzel); and a stranger, Lars, a traveling Swede with vaudeville in his heart (David Kennedy). With the exception of his neighbor, the lovely young Nadya (Esther Almazán), all of them are about 40 years old. And all of them are alone: They're beginning to wonder who in this brave new world will be with them in their old age.

Rooster proposes an ironic antidote to the Soviet system in its decline. He wants them all to live together in peace and harmony in the dacha, and to share communally in the bounty of his windfall. His cynical guests can't quite believe in the generosity of this latter-day communist. They're too used to a system that doesn't work. They talk incessantly of crowded apartments in the city, of assorted schemes to wheedle an extra room out of the incompetent housing authority. Pasha idly mentions his flat of three rooms. "How did you, one person, get permission to have three rooms?" demands another guest. The answer is revealing: money, that's how. Pasha gave up art history for a more lucrative trade. He soundproofs the flimsy doors of shared apartments, the better to keep down the din from the families on the other side of the partition.

Pasha has risen through capitalist pluck, and, in another irony, it's the re-emerging capitalist ethic that threatens Rooster's planned utopia. Money and proprietary rights arrive at the door in the person of a mysterious old man, Nikolay (William Killian), who's revealed as the ex-lover of the dead aunt.

Despite its allusions to real life, the play unfolds in an almost dream-like fashion, marked by surreal conversations and odd games. The guests read aloud the old man's love letters, hidden in the house for decades, and they compose extemporaneous letters about their own deepest longings, and recite them aloud to the other guests.

Cerceau is a challenging work, long at about two-and-a-half hours, and the formal recitations can be difficult to follow. Staged in the round by co-directors Carol Saturansky and David Greenwood, the play has some lively movements, with actors charging across the stage and behind the house seats, but it can be hard to hear the actors when they talk with their backs to the audience.

As usual, though, all the actors in this ensemble company are up to the challenge of a play that moves within small parameters. AnnaMarie Greenwood is devastating as the disillusioned Valyusha; David Greenwood moving as Rooster, the man who wants to set things right.

Cerceau means hoop in French; it's the name of a old-fashioned hoop and stick game that old Nikolay keeps begging to play. When the game is finally found, he delightedly exclaims that though wars and generations and revolutions have passed, the hoop just keeps going. In the same way, over time, from The Cherry Orchard to Cerceau, people keep circling back to the same longings for connection.


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