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Traveling troupe finds modern themes in Chekhov and visits to small towns

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The kiss
At a rehearsal at Luverne Siefert's home the lacivious manservant Yasha, played by Stephen Cartmell, takes advantage of a moment alone with Dunyasha (Elise Langer.) Cartmell is a new Zealander and Langer is from France.
MPR Photo/ Euan Kerr

The stately Gunderson House has oak paneling, antique photographs, and an eye-catching china collection. But on a recent evening it was far from quiet.

A hoard of actors swarmed around the house trying to wedge both a play and an audience into its nooks and crannies, the first stop in a tour that aims to bring a taste of professional theater to people in small town Minnesota.

New Ulm native Luverne Siefert and his troupe of Minneapolis actors are touring historic homes throughout the state to perform Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."

The tour brings them this weekend to the Gunderson House on the edge of Kenyon, a south central Minnesota town about 15 miles east of Faribault. The house is usually home to more sedate historical society gatherings.

It was organized chaos. As the audience took their seats, actor Sarah Agnew went over lines with local performer Casey Baumgartner, 15.

"We got to Paris and it was cold and rainy and my French is just awful," Baumgartner said. She plays 17-year-old Anya in the play.

"Oh, I am sure it was fine," responded Agnew, as Varya, Anya's 24-year-old sister.

Half the actors in the show are from the area. The mix of historic homes, local performers and intimate theater is Siefert's idea. It began last year when the director decided to put on a play in his hometown of New Ulm.

"Our goal was really to bring in people who hadn't seen theater before," he said.

Siefert, who teaches at the University of Minnesota, is also a veteran of Ten Thousand Things Theater which specializes in taking stripped-down productions of classic plays to unusual venues like homeless shelters and prisons. He liked the idea of using that model in small town Minnesota.

"I was awakened to this idea of having an audience that was literally one foot away from you, and able to see you sweat, and there was no place to hide," he said.

To Siefert, New Ulm's historic Lind House was ideal for the project.

"We wanted to do a show that seemed to fit in that house," he said. And we chose 'The Cherry Orchard' primarily because of all the foreclosures that are going on southern Minnesota, the whole state of Minnesota.

"And the story of 'The Cherry Orchard' has a universal humanity that everyone can understand."

Chekhov's classic play tells of an aristocratic Russian family in such severe debt that it is about to lose the family home and accompanying cherry orchard. Chekhov wrote it as a comedy, but some companies play it as a tragedy.

Sifert's adaptation does a little of both. Actors take pratfalls, and get soaked by malfunctioning garden hoses. But that just increases the pathos of the ineffectual efforts to prevent the foreclosure. Siefert said the house plays an important part in the drama.

"It does get sold and it's sold at auction and all the family has to leave, and walk out the door," he said. "And so we leave and we lock the door and we leave the audience in there for a few moments."

The first show last year was so successful that the company is taking the production to Kenyon, Little Falls, Taylors Falls, Worthington and Blue Earth in coming weeks. They'll perform in a historic home each time with a cast of actors from Minnesota, France, Argentina and New Zealand.

Baumgartner, a student at Kenyon High School, said she found it intimidating at first to work with a cast of professionals.

"You know, I am in the car on the way here sweating and my stomach is turning," she said. "But you walk in and they are all just so welcoming, and I already knew the lines so it was just sort of putting the actions to it and it's actually not as hard as I was expecting it to be."

Another person having fun is Tom Ersland of Zumbrota, Minn. Ersland, who plays one of the aristocrats, said he's not quite sure how the company found him.

But he's excited to be a part of the show, both for the chance to work with the visiting performers and to bring something to a little different to the Gunderson House.

"It means a lot to me as a native of Kenyon, even though I don't live here anymore," Ersland said. "But I think it will be nice for the community to see the house used for theater that really fits the era of this house and the beauty and charm of it is perfect for this script."

And the audiences in each of the towns seem to agree. Many of the shows are already sold out.