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The Forest
Trees Lounge: Robert Elliott and Howard Swain find the fun in 19th-century timber-management struggles in a new production of Ostrovsky's 'The Forest.'

Shakespeare SC fills Ostrovsky's 'The Forest' with environmental conceits and jests

By Anne Gelhaus

THANKS TO Chekhov, most Americans are familiar with the best tragedies Russian theater has to offer. With its production of Alexander Ostrovsky's The Forest, Shakespeare Santa Cruz proves that Russian playwrights can don the comedian's mask just as successfully.

Ostrovsky's plays are still widely produced in Russia, but he never achieved much fame outside his native country (although his protégé Stanislavsky brought what he learned at Ostrovsky's Moscow Arts Theater to America to teach actors the "method"). Since English translations of his script are few and far between, Shakespeare Santa Cruz commissioned company actress Kate Hawley to come up with a new one for The Forest. Her adaptation crackles with sharp, dry wit, tempered with just enough Slavic overtones to keep audiences mindful of the play's origins.

Director Anne Justine D'Zmura has added a lot of physical comedy to Ostrovsky's verbal humor, and the cast as a whole manages to camp it up without turning the production into a vaudeville. Sharon Lockwood is especially good as Raissa Pavlovna, a wealthy widow and owner of a country estate that she's selling off in pieces to a would-be timber baron.

During the course of the play, Raissa pretends to be a pious pillar of society, an astute businesswoman and a generous family benefactor, but most of the time she fools no one but herself. Lockwood takes her character through these changes using an amazing array of facial expressions and postures that capture Raissa's duplicity to great comic effect.

The Forest, written in 1871, is Ostrovsky's ode to actors, whom he generally adored on principle. The tragedian is represented by Raissa's nephew Gennady (Howard Swain), the comedian by his friend Arkady (Robert Elliott). Both Swain and Elliott seem to have an innate understanding of how their characters' considerable egos feed into their considerable compassion. The two actors play the two actors with an appealing blend of humor and humanity.

As evidenced by its title and setting, The Forest also addresses the underlying issue of conservation versus development. Depending on who's in a particular scene, the preponderance of green in both Ramsey Avery's sets and Miranda Hoffman's costumes represents either financial interests or environmental concerns. The forest-green petticoats Raissa wears under her widow's weeds are a great visual joke.

Unfortunately, cast members dropped some of the play's best verbal punch lines on opening night. While the laughs were still plentiful, these gaffes slowed the show's momentum noticeably at times. With luck, these lines will be picked up as the run continues. Overall, Shakespeare Santa Cruz is giving Ostrovsky a fine introduction into American society, but the company should take care not to mar the playwright's reception.

The Forest plays in repertory through Aug. 31 in the Festival Glen at UC­Santa Cruz. Tickets are $17­$23. (408/459-2159)

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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