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Saturday, July 01, 2006

It's a summer of pleasing contrasts at Chautauqua Theater Company as the energetic visions of co-artistic directors Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny take flight for a second year.
Once again, a group of 15 of the nation's most talented emerging actors will work with seasoned professionals from television, theater and movies in the graceful Bratton Theater, whose renovation has removed none of its charm.
And the plays to be presented in the theater company's whirlwind, nine-week season range from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" to new plays to be performed in workshops.
The season starts Saturday with a performance of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," which runs until July 9; "The Art of Coarse Acting" will run from July 22 to July 30; and "Twelfth Night" will run from Aug. 12 to Aug. 19.
Through it all, Benesch and McSweeny have detected a theme: comedy.
"We are billing the three main productions as an entire season of comedy," says Benesch, "with the Chekhov being a comedy of life, "The Art of Coarse Acting' being a comedy of art, and then, of course, "Twelfth Night' is a comedy of love."
Benesch and McSweeny are a couple personally as well as professionally - she held a plethora of roles since coming to Chautauqua as a conservatory student in 1989, and McSweeny first visited in 1997 to be with her. They have turned the summer program into an idyllic mixture of new inspirations and old friends, particularly Lisa Harrow and Stuart Margolin, who starred in last year's "All My Sons."
Both are veteran stage, screen and television actors. Margolin had a long-running role as Angel Martin on the Rockford Files, while Harrow, a New Zealand native, environmentalist and author, is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and played lead roles during her time with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
McSweeny says, "Lisa and Stuart were so incredible in "All My Sons' last year that we wanted to have them back, and we were looking for a project that would put them together in a different combination than husband and wife, and that turned out to be brother and sister in "The Cherry Orchard.' "
Benesch lauds the pair for embodying "the essence of great repertory acting - their ability to be chameleons, and to change to such a completely different play."
Another familiar face appearing in "The Cherry Orchard" is Rebecca Guy, who worked as the theater company's artistic director for 17 years.
Just as important as the seasoned professionals are what Benesch calls the "incredibly talented emerging actors from the top graduate programs," who compete for an increasingly coveted spot in the company. McSweeny says, "this is a place now where you can see these actors on the way up."
Margolin is also impressed. "The young students that we're working with - I find them astounding," he says. "Their energy and their intelligence is inspiring me."
The second play in the series brings another friend to Chautauqua. The play "The Art of Coarse Acting," based on a book by British comic Michael Green, was a favorite of "Our dear friend Dylan Baker," as Benesch calls him, who has had scores of roles, including television episodes of "C.S.I." and "Law and Order."
Green wrote several "Art of Coarse" books on such subjects as sailing, rugby and golf, which "took a look at the willing yet talent-free amateur and what damage they could inflict on the various art forms that they avidly pursued," McSweeny says, laughing. For Chautauqua, Baker has selected five of his favorite sketches and presents them as performed by the hapless Bakersburg Community Theater. It's described as " "Waiting for Guffman' meets Monty Python."
For a final choice, Benesch calls "Twelfth Night": "Shakespeare's perfect comedy. It's filled with music and poetry, and it's fabulous."
The two plays to be performed in workshops are each linked to the theme of that week's Chautauqua morning lectures. "Aux Cops," a story of a volunteer police officer who dreams of being a detective, complements the third week's theme, "The Art of Citizenship." The second play, "100 Saints You Should Know," which profiles various characters, including a priest, two teenagers and a cleaning woman, is linked to the theme "Belief in America." Each performance is followed by audience discussions with the author, director and cast.
So far, the artistic directors say, reaction to their innovations has been positive. McSweeny says that last year he and Benesch were warned, "Chautauqua audiences don't like change!" On the contrary, he says, "They embraced it, we had a record turnout, and things went great. We find the audience to be incredibly supportive, a highly literate audience. We were really intent last year in reaching out beyond the people who are really invested in coming and being on the grounds, reaching out to the greater Western New York community, including Buffalo - we really started to draw audiences from there, which seasons the audience with more diversity."
When Benesch and McSweeny had dinner at a local restaurant with Harrow and Margolin and their spouses recently, they were a bit surprised to be recognized by a 21-year-old bartender who'd seen "All My Sons" last season. "And then the waitress, who was 20, had gotten herself a season subscription last year," McSweeny adds, pride in his voice.
"That was very moving," Benesch says.
Later, in a separate interview, Harrow and Margolin tell the same story. All four are pleased with support beyond the gates of Chautauqua itself. And Margolin has one other promise he knows will appeal to Western New Yorkers: "I would remind the readers that if they come to the theater, there's a very good chance that the Buffalo Bills will make the playoffs."

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