JOHNSTOWN - Look up the performance schedule at any local theater venue in Fulton or Montgomery counties, and you're likely to find light-hearted musicals, comedies and children's shows fill much of the calendar.
Actors and directors say more serious material - including complex, classic and literary drama - is challenging but offers rewards, both for the performers and the audiences. Weighty dramatic offerings are in various stages of planning and production at Fulton-Montgomery College, Johnstown's Colonial Little Theatre and the Glove Performing Arts Center in Gloversville.
Jason Radalin, assistant professor of theater arts, film studies and English at FM, is directing a production of Anton Chekhov's classic "The Cherry Orchard," which will open at the college theater this month.
Professor Jason Radalin, at right, talks with actors during a rehearsal this week for “The Cherry Orchard” on the stage at the Fulton-Montgomery Community College Theater. The Chekhov play, scheduled to open later this month at FM, is one of several weighty dramas in the works at local theaters. Actors and directors say such complex, classic plays are challenging but offer rewards, both for the performers and the audiences. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
The play, which originally opened in Moscow in 1904, tells the story of an aristocratic Russian family that, having fallen on hard times, faces the loss of its estate and beloved orchard. The play delves deeply into political, emotional and cultural concerns, prompting audiences more toward thoughtful reflection than mirth.
"Chekhov called this play a comedy, which is almost a joke in and of itself," Radalin said. "But it's a human comedy."
Having directed a wide variety of productions at FM, Radalin says it's sometimes easier to fill the theater with popular, modern comedies and musicals than more serious shows. The age of the play is not necessarily an indication of its tone or its ability to entertain, he said.
The Glove Performing Arts Center, 42 N. Main St., Gloversville, will present "In Darfur," a play by Winter Miller about the suffering that has resulted from the recent civil strife in Sudan. Directed by Matthew Teichner, it will be presented for high school students Tuesday through Friday, with one public performance at 7 p.m. Friday. Tickets will cost $8, or $5 for students and seniors. For more details, call 773-8255, Ext. 25.
Fulton-Montgomery Community College, Route 67, Johnstown, will present Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 and at 2 p.m. Dec. 2. Ticket information to be announced.
The Colonial Little Theatre, at 1 Colonial Court, Johnstown, plans to present Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" over two weekends, starting March 8. Tickets will cost $12. For more details, see Coloniallittletheatre.blogspot.com.
"Sometimes 'old' equals 'serious,'" he says, noting the this comparison doesn't hold up with you consider the comedic works of Shakespeare, for example - plays that are indisputably classics but are filled with excitement and levity.
Radalin said the gravitas of plays like the "The Cherry Orchard" can be daunting for directors and actors, but every production has its own challenges.
"It takes just as much work to put on 'Annie' as it does to put on this show," Radalin said.
Challenges for the actors
FM student Louis Pabon, who at 60 is the eldest member of the cast, admits he didn't know what to make of the play when Radalin asked him to take on the role of Firs, an aged butler.
"The most impressive thing for me is the learning process that I've gone through," Pabon said. "With Mr. Radalin teaching me and helping me to understand it, I started to understand the humor and the complexity of the play."
Beki Silva, who plays Lyubov in "The Cherry Orchard," said she's previously acted in musicals and comedies, and the Chekhov drama is a new test of her abilities.
"'The Cherry Orchard,' being such a prestigious piece of work, does put an immense amount of pressure on me as an actress, and I'm sure it does for the other actors and actresses, too," she said. "My character ... flips from a childish, silly attitude to intense despair and self-pity at the drop of a hat. To do that well as an actress is so incredibly difficult. Luckily, I have a patient director and a love for the challenge. I just hope that, in the end, I dont leave Chekhov turning (and cursing at me in Russian) in his grave."
As part of a college with a strong theater program, Radalin and his actors and assistants don't have to worry about whether any given show they stage will have the popular appeal of a Broadway hit.
"Here at FM, we have a built-in audience," he said, referring to the students and faculty and other members of the college community. "But there's a mission for us here ... which is to present different [plays] and the classics, and stuff with complexity."
But other local theaters that operate independently have to fill seats to stay within tight budgets.
"You don't want to build a show and play to an empty house," Radalin said. "The Glove and the Colonial Little Theatre need to do things that will draw an audience and that cast members will want to audition for."
Drawing an audience
John Birchler, a former president of the Colonial Little Theatre who has been involved in dozens of shows over the last decade at the Johnstown playhouse, said he was worried that the last production there would scare audiences away because of its title.
"I was surprised that 'The Cemetery Club' did so well," Birchler said, referring to the comedy by Ivan Menchell, which was performed under the direction of Lisa Pfeiffer over two weekends in October. "Who wants to deal with something so heavy? But they did quite well."
Birchler said he directed "Death of a Salesman" at CLT a few years ago and found it difficult to promote and difficult to cast because of its reputation as a weighty classic.
He plans to direct Edward Albee's classic 1960s drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at CLT in mid-March.
He said he hopes the "recognition factor" of the play - it was made into a hit movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1966 - will help attract audiences.
"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," he said of the play. "This is a real actor's piece," he said. "You've got four messed up people dealing with serious issues, emotionally charged memories ... Done well, this is an amazing piece."
A strong production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" demands excellent casting, he said.
"It's a real challenge," Birchler said. "For this play, all four actors need to be strong."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at email@example.com.