Flying Anew

The Tucson Art Theatre makes a comeback with the help of veteran actor Ken Ruta

One day, Ken Ruta--a magnificent stage actor who has appeared in many Arizona Theatre Company productions and has enjoyed long relationships with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, where he has lived for 30 years--got a letter from someone at a little Tucson company he'd never heard of, and in fact, hadn't produced a play in six years. It was Tucson Art Theatre's Cynthia Meier, boldly asking Ruta if he'd like to come back to Tucson to appear in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.

To Meier's amazement, Ruta agreed.

"At my age," says Ruta, who admits only that he is celebrating the 60th anniversary of his debut in the children's chorus of what is now Lyric Opera of Chicago, "I'm trying to cut back and slow down. But I'll go anywhere to do Chekhov and Shakespeare, and maybe a little Shaw."

Says Meier, "I'd never met Ken; I'd just seen him onstage and thought he was god. David Greenwood (Tucson Art Theatre's artistic director) and I had wanted to do The Seagull for 20 years, since we were students at the UA. I finally decided that life is short, and if we're going to do it, let's do it with the best."

Meier and Greenwood established Tucson Art Theatre in 1989, and in the early years, produced many classic American plays by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Clifford Odets. In the mid 1990s, they seemed intent on working their way through the complete oeuvre of Horton Foote. But eventually, everybody involved got busy with other things, and the company went dormant.

Now, says Meier, she has taken out a loan on her house just to finance The Seagull. "I have no idea what comes next," she says. "We're developing a nice ensemble very quickly, and I hope this is a reawakening of the company, but we haven't figured out a season."

Figuring out The Seagull is much easier. Set on a Russian country estate in the 1890s, the story involves 10 characters in discussions and arguments about life, love and art. Two of the principal characters are writers, and two others are actresses. Some enjoy great success; others are failures. The young playwright Konstantin, for example, writes an avant-garde play the other characters mock, and he fails even at suicide in the first act. The young actress Nina enjoys brief celebrity in Moscow, but her failed affair with an older writer has left her with nothing but a child born out of wedlock, and the resulting public disgrace has reduced her to playing provincial theaters.

Ruta plays Dorn, an old doctor who is far from the peak of his profession, but who does serve as the play's voice of reason. In past appearances in The Seagull, Ruta has portrayed Konstantin and Trigorin, Nina's feckless lover. He was engaged to play still another character in a 1967 production that fell through.

"Anybody can relate to almost every character in this play," says Meier. "No one's a hero or a villain; they're all full of great flaws and great strengths. Chekhov shows that the current American view that the world is divided into evil-doers and do-gooders isn't true. We're all full of both nobility and treachery. That's true of anyone who longs for something larger than themselves."

Things end badly for some characters, but Nina, the one who has fallen the furthest, ultimately realizes that fame and glory count far less than the ability just to get through life. "So even though a lot of the play is about failure and regret," says Meier, "Nina has the strength to endure."

Ruta has certainly endured over the years. One of his specialties is performing non-singing roles in operas at leading houses in America and Europe. "The money is so much better in opera," Ruta confides with a chuckle. His first assignment years ago, one he has repeated many times since, was playing the Major Domo in Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos--in German. To say the least, he was nervous. "Oh, the thought of acting in a language I didn't speak!" he says.

But he's had to do that in straight plays, even when the language was ostensibly English. A recent example: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, in which Ruta starred at Arizona Theatre Company last year. "That was the most difficult text, because the man has no music in his ear," says Ruta. (In my review, I described the script as "a textbook with stage directions.") "That was just absolutely scary. Now, Chekhov is always very musical."

But not necessarily in translation. Ruta--who, by the way, collects records even more deliriously than he reads books--and Meier are both studiously avoiding Frayn's translation of The Seagull. Even translations by such leading playwrights as Tom Stoppard and Tennessee Williams don't consistently evoke Chekhov's "music." Solution: Cobble together the best lines from a variety of translations.

"We're looking for lines that sound simple and real, with a music to them, a rhythm that fits the characters," says Meier. "Certain characters seem to be better rendered in some translations than others."

So far, rehearsals have gone smoothly. In part, that's because the cast members get along well. Besides Ruta, three other Equity actors have joined the ensemble: J. Andrew McGrath, Susan Arnold and William Killian. Also appearing are such familiar locals as Harris Kendall, as Nina, and David Greenwood, as Konstantin.

Credit for smooth preparation must also go to Chekhov. "In rehearsal," says Ruta, "you don't do anything in Chekhov but illuminate."

Agrees Meier, "It's not about acting. It's how you illuminate what's underneath."