THIS year's lineup does finally give women some prime spots :

Avignon, France : The Avignon Festival couldn't have set the stage any better for Tiago Rodrigues. On Monday last, that Portuguese director was announced as the next director of the event, one of the most important on the European Theater Calendar.

The same night, his new production of Chekhov's ''The Cherry Orchard,'' starring Isabelle Huppert, opened the 2021 edition.

Excitement was high, despite the enormous line to enter the Cour d'honneur, an open air stage installed on the grounds of Avignon's Papal Palace. The French government requires proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test for all events with over 1,000 audience members, and the checks led to a 40-minute delay and grateful applause when the preshow announcements finally started.

Two hours later, the reception was noticeably less warm. While Rodriguez has brought well-liked productions of ''Antony and Cleopatra'' and ''Sopro'' to Avignon in recent years, his ''Cherry Orchard'' is an oddly amorphous proposition, built around actors who often seem worlds apart onstage.

It doesn't help that Huppert plays Lyubov, the aristocratic landowner who remains blind to her family's financial plight, like a close cousin of Amanda Wingfield in ''The Glass Menagerie'' which she just performed in Paris. She brings the same diction and the same childlike, brittle energy to both characters, down to her trembling lips.

The production accommodates Huppert rather than the other way around, and doesn't require her stage partners to blend in, either. Ridrigues hasn't enforced a specific acting style, and the community at the heart of ''The Cherry Orchard'' never really coheres.

A few performers make the most of it. In a welcome departure from French habits, Rodrigues opted for colorblind casting : Lyubov's relatives are all played by Black actors, as is Lopakhin, the self-made man who ultimately buys Lyubov's estate.

In that role, Adama Diop is by turns forceful and sympathetic. The role the ageing Firs, who yearns for the glory days of the aristocracy, is taken with lovely lightness by a veteran of the French stage, Marcel Bazonnet.

In lieu of Lyubov's beloved trees, the stage is filled with the Cour d'honneur's old seats, which this year were replaced with new wooden ones, There is even a heavy-handed number about the renovation - one of several interpolations to Chekov's text - from Manuela Azevedo and Helder Goncalves, who provide live music throughout.

''Things will change,'' Azevedo sings. ''Even these chairs changed places.'' It's a nice touch, but here as elsewhere, this ''Cherry Orchard'' is too anecdotal to say much about the world. Rodrigues will presumably return to Avignon in 2023, the first edition he has scheduled to oversee. Let's hope for a little more insight then.

''The Cherry Orchard'' aside, this year's lineup finally gave women some prime spots, after years of male-skewed programming under the current director, Olivier Py.

The premiere of ''Kingdom,'' by the Belgian director Anne-Cecile Vandelam, suffered its own delay because of heavy rain, but those who waited were rewarded with the festival's finest new work up to that point.

The Publishing continues and The World Students Society thanks author Laura Cappelle.


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