TEN CHIMNEYS marks the Portland directorial debut of Artist Repertory Theatre's incoming artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez. It's an odd show to inaugurate his tenure: Rodriguez is relatively young and has been vocal about his hope to expand Artist Rep's audience base. But while the plays Rodriguez chose for the theater's 2013/2014 season reflect an impulse to shake things up a bit (The Motherfucker with the Hat, anyone?), Ten Chimneys couldn't be more conventional.
Set on the estate of famous real-life theater power couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Ten Chimneys is organized around a 1938 Broadway production of The Seagull, starring Alfred (Michael Mendelson) and the charming young ingénue Uta (Abby Wilde). Actors are assembling on the estate to rehearse, while Lunt's family hovers fretfully around the fringes; their interactions churn into a gossipy stew of jealousy, infidelity, and high-wire bickering.
As an ensemble piece, Ten Chimneys succeeds nicely; casting is solid across the board. Todd Van Voris is not nearly fat enough for his role, as an actor whose size is remarked on by the other characters, but it's easy to see why he was cast; he's great here. (He's always great—audiences visibly perk up when he walks onstage.) Out-of-towner Abby Wilde, too, is top-notch, and seems effortlessly fresh as the talented young actress who becomes a pawn between Alfred and Lynn, whose relationship might be more about power than sex.
But all the interpersonal squabbling (and meta-Seagull winks) are far less interesting than the window the show offers into the theater as work—there are great riffs here on stage makeup and hats, for example, and how directors interpret a script.
Ten Chimneys is very much a for-theater-fans only affair, and even theater fans will probably want to consult their Chekhov before attending to make sure they're up on the play's Seagull references. At its worst, Ten Chimneys is overly expository, melodramatic, and hammy. But at its best, it offers a lesson in how to watch the show you're watching—a reminder of the craft, the hundreds of tiny decisions about makeup and lighting and hats—that goes into making live performance look easy.