COMPASS REPERTORY THEATRE opened their first-ever show last weekend, billing themselves as the "new place to go for classical theatre in Portland." Portland already has a classical theater company, of course—the Northwest Classical Theatre Company has been quietly chugging away for years. And then there's the Classic Greek Theatre of Oregon, and the odd standard trotted out by Portland Center Stage or Artists Rep—Portland isn't exactly clamoring for another purveyor of dusty classic plays. Compass Rep, though, does two things well out of the gate with their production of The Cherry Orchard.
First off, the show is produced in conjunction with the Northwest Film Center and Powells' Celebrating Chekhov series. Partnering with other local arts organizations is a canny move, and too few theater companies bother to do it. Plus, the show marks the West Coast premiere of playwright Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Chekhov's script, which ups the appeal of the well-known play. (Stoppard is best known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love, and of course, his uncredited work on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.)
The Cherry Orchard is about a family of Russian aristocrats who've run out of money—they can no longer afford their estate or the small army of servants and hangers-on who support their lifestyle. Stoppard's adaptation highlights the humor in what Chekhov always insisted was a comedic play, and director Daniel Shaw goes one further by introducing a pratfall-y element of physical comedy: a character who, in the script, wears boots that "squeak loudly" is here accompanied by a clown-nose honk when he walks across the room; actor after actor winds up sliding, tumbling, or collapsing hilariously to the floor. But even squeaky clown-nose noises can't render the tribulations of Russia's landed gentry as slapstick—there's a problem of tone here, and some of the attempts at humor feel strained. The cast's acting styles reinforce this problem, ranging from diffidently, winkingly modern to unselfconsciously baroque. The set adds little, and there's an odd inconsistency to the costumes, which range from period-piece ornate to notably cheap looking. But Stoppard's adaptation is wry and accessible, and Compass gives it an earnest effort. It's not a home run, but it's a promising start.