Last year was quite the highpoint for Curt Columbus. And not just because he was tapped to be artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company. No, if Providence had instead invited one of the other impressive candidates to stick around, Columbus still would have been flying high.
CLEARLY HAVING FUN: Columbus, in his element.
As a translator of Russian, Columbus had finally completed his takes on the four major plays of Anton Chekhov and seen them published together. His Cherry Orchard — he insisted that the “The” be dropped, since Russian doesn’t employ articles — was staged to appreciative reviews. It was directed by Tina Landau at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf, where Columbus was associate artistic director. And his ingenious co-adaptation, with Marilyn Campbell, of Dostoyevsky’s 600-page Crime and Punishment, pared to its core for two main actors, mesmerized local audiences last fall at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre.
And now, finally, Columbus is getting the chance to direct Cherry Orchard (Septem¬ber 15-October 22), introducing himself to the company and the city through a work that’s especially important to him. The 2006-07 season will see him taking a stab at directing Trinity’s traditional annual A Christmas Carol, but the Chekhov opener should be the killer, the work that sets the stage for what we can expect from him and Trinity in its Columbus incarnation.
In person, the 41-year-old Columbus comes across all alert enthusiasm, his boyish face beaming over a nominal attempt to mature it with a close-cropped beard. Never mind the effect of those lugubrious Russians — this guy is having fun. A bicycle leans next to his desk. Across the office, the sweet face of a young Ethel Barrymore, which used to adorn a Trinity stairwell, provides workaday inspiration.
As for our inspiration, he wants to do so first with a renovated theater lobby. Columbus thought the existing one was too shabby to invite audiences into the excitements within. Spectrographic analysis of faded pigment samples should reproduce original Majestic Theatre colors accurately enough to make Providence Preservation Society members swoon.
Columbus has been doing things to brighten the spirits of the acting company as well. He got the financing for a workshop last month that 13 of the 15 company members were able to attend. He describes the experience as “like four of the best days in my life.” They worked on eight plays that may be in Trinity’s future, discussing, improvising, creating. “It was like Chek¬hov with the Moscow Art Theater going off to Yalta, you know?” he said. “Ideas started coming, and the company was so bracing, jumping in with both feet.”
The company has reason to be excited: none have less than 30 weeks of work at Trinity in the next year, rare security in the theater biz. The finances of theatergoers are also being considered; every performance will have some seats available for $20 — in addition to last-minute $15 rush tickets and upstairs theater $10 bench seats.
What about Cherry Orchard? Columbus chose the play over its companions because it’s an ensemble piece. Lovey Ranevskaya, played by Phyllis Kay, and daughter Anya (Emily Young) return home after five years in Paris, and the flighty mother proceeds to ignore the economic plight that threatens the existence of the estate. Fourteen characters mill and bump together in a fraught atmosphere that the original director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, played as bitter tragedy but that Chekhov intended to be dry-eyed, occasionally farcical, foolishness. It was his last play, written in 1904.