The Whims of ‘Wars’
On the subject of Robert Wilson, music critic John Rockwell was once moved to write: “A first encounter with [Wilson’s] works can be literally overwhelming. The sheer beauty of his theatrical visions, the dreamy rightness of the action, the hypnotic blend of non-linear disjunction and deeper coherence—all of these seize one’s attention and compel one into thinking that nothing like this can ever have happened on stage before.”
Over the past decade, Wilson has staged more than two dozen productions in America and Europe—many of which have become theatrical landmarks—including The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, The $ Value of Man and his collaboration with composer Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. But his current project, which promises to be the most ambitious yet, may not be on view in this country for well over a year.
the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down is a 12-hour, multi-lingual work which has been in development for five years on three continents, at an estimated cost of $14 million. Some two-thirds of the piece (about eight hours) was scheduled to premiere at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles next month, performed by a company of hundreds.
But Festival director Robert J. Fitzpatrick announced March 30 that because of insufficient funds, the production, widely considered a centerpiece of the Festival, was cancelled.
“Both Bob Wilson and I knew from the beginning that the CIVIL warS was a high-risk venture and that the larger Wilson’s vision grew, the more difficult it would be to realize,” Fitzpatrick said. A budget of $2.6 million had been projected for the production, of which Wilson had covered $1.4 million in donations and expected ticket sales. Wilson called the cancellation “totally unethical,” and expressed continued hopes that “this work can be seen here some day.”
In fact, portions of the CIVIL warS—specifically those composed by Glass and David Byrne, leader of the new music ensemble Talking Heads—are tentatively scheduled to be presented in New York at the Metropolitan Opera sometime in 1985. And audiences in Minneapolis have already gotten a provocative glimpse of Wilson’s epic.
The Knee Plays consist of 14 entr’actes three to five minutes in length which will serve as connecting interludes between the 15 larger scenes in CIVIL warS. They were developed last month at the Walker Art Center where Wilson was in residence, and performed at the Center April 26-28 in conjunction with the Guthrie Theater.
The scenes comprising The Knee Plays communicate primarily through sounds, imagery, stage design and movement, rather than narration or plot. Each one centers on a striking image or encounter. In Knee Play I: The Tree, for example, a golden puppet asleep in a tree awakens to confront a charging lion. In Admiral Perry Meets the Japanese Fisherman, Perry stages a Punch and Judy show in front of the cabin of his ship, which slowly explodes. Strongly Japanese in design, these scenes reflect the influence of Bunraku, Noh and Kabuki theatre. Japanese designer Jun Matsuno and choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi assisted Wilson in the staging. Byrne’s unusual music incorporates a variety of pan-cultural influences, from Asian sounds to American street idioms.
This segment, the sole glimpse of the CIVIL warS that American audiences are likely to get before 1985, has served to whet appetites even further for the monumental piece.
‘Roads’ From Africa
Two of Africa’s most celebrated playwrights have just directed their own works on American stages. Coincidentally similar in title, Wole Soyinka’s The Road is now running at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, while Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca is on view at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
Soyinka, a Nigerian, wrote The Road in 1963, but the Goodman production marks the American premiere of this contemporary tragedy of Nigerian life. Soyinka himself has worked at the Goodman before, in 1979 directing the premiere of his own Death and the King’s Horseman. Most recently, Soyinka published Ake: The Years of Childhood, a vivid, poetic account of his early life. The Road runs through May 27.
The Road to Mecca is Athol Fugard’s newest work, and the Yale production is its world premiere. In recent years, the Rep has become an American home for the South African playwright. It has produced new productions of his earlier works, such as Boesman and Lena and Hello and Goodbye, as well as the American premere of A Lesson from Aloes and the world premiere of Master Harold. . .and the boys, both directed by Fugard himself. The Road to Mecca is the story of two women and a man in contemporary South Africa. Regarding his role as director, Fugard comments, “The specific energy you need to turn on actors is exhausting. Do I worship actors!” The Road to Mecca can be seen through May 19.
From Page to Stage
New play development is a controversial subject these days. Are theatres really committing to new work, or are they relegating it to ancillary programs—small “workshop” productions and sparsely attended readings? A glance through this month’s production schedules indicates that “development” is more than just a pigeonhole in which to hide new plays; at least three works which have gone through various developmental processes have made their way to mainstages as full-fledged subscription offerings.
James Yoshimura’s Ohio Tip-Off is the final production of the season at Center Stage in Baltimore. Artistic director Stan Wojewodski, Jr., became aware of the work at last summer’s O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference, where it was selected from more than 1,700 submissions for development and a staged reading. The play, directed for Center Stage by John Pasquin, is set in the locker room of a semi-pro basketball team forced to compete one-on-one for one professional contract. “I had known and admired Jim’s earlier work,” remarked Wojewodski, “and when Ohio Tip-Off became available, I decided that producing this important new play was an opportunity Center Stage shouldn’t miss.”
Yoshimura’s other plays include Stunts and Mercenaries, first presented at the Interart Theatre in New York, and recently published in Theatre Communications Group’s New Plays USA 2. Ohio Tip-Off opens May 4 and runs through June 10.
A play originally developed in a workshop at the Cricket Theatre in Minneapolis is now premiering simultaneously at the Cricket and at Victory Gardens in Chicago, where it has received a grant from the Foundation of the Dramatists Guild/CBS New Plays Program. Scheherazade is written by Marisha Chamberlain, who, before her current residency at the Cricket, was a playwright-in-residence at the Playwrights Center, also in Minneapolis. The play concerns a rapist and his victim, and the consequences and complexities of this kind of violence. Dennis Zacek, Victory Gardens’ artistic director, staged the Chicago production, and Sean Michael Dowse directed Scheherazade at the Cricket.
The Margaret Ghost is Carole Braverman’s play about the 19th century feminist Margaret Fuller—the only major female writer of the Transcendentalist movement which included Hawthorne, Emerson and Horace Greeley, all of whom appear in the play. It is currently running at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre as the season’s final mainstage offering, under the direction of Edward Hastings.
Braverman became a member of the Berkeley Rep staff for the 1983-84 season, as both playwright-in-residence and literary manager. The year-long development of The Margaret Ghost has included readings of various drafts with the company, culminating in a staged reading as part of the theatre’s Playworks series. According to acting artistic director Joy Carlin (who also plays the title role), “What convinced us that this was a play for our mainstage was the tremendous, positive response it received at our Playworks reading. The audience loved it.”
The Margaret Ghost runs through May 20.
Butcher and Friend
German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz has become familiar to American audiences through recent productions of such plays as Request Concert, Mensch Meier and Michi’s Blood. His bleak vision of contemporary working-class life is once again revealed in Through the Leaves, running through May 6 at New York’s Interart Theatre in conjunction with Mabou Mines. Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis and featuring Frederick Neumann and Ruth Maleczech, Through the Leaves is the story of a brutal relationship between a woman butcher and her lover. Roger Downey, an old hand at Kroetz, is responsible for the English translation. Says Kroetz of his own works, “The worst pain is that the characters have no capacity to see through their situation. They’ve been rendered inarticulate by society at large.” Through the Leaves is Kroetz’ third version of the story, which first appeared under the title Men’s Business and then became A Man, A Dictionary.
A traveling theatre troupe in the fictional Eastern European country of Strevia is forced to limit its repertoire to the classics, because the Socialist government has banned modern drama. One company member is a spy; a line in one particular play, when spoken, will cause a gunman in the audience to shoot the actor—but no one knows which line. At This Evening’s Performance, written by McCarter Theatre Company artistic director Nagle Jackson, combines elements of farce, political intrigue—even a play-within-a-play—to explore the issues of artistic freedom, and the political role of the theatre.
After a successful three-week run at Princeton’s McCarter, under the direction of Jackson himself, At This Evening’s Performance has moved to the Virginia Museum Theatre where it will play May 4-26. The play features members of McCarter’s resident company, including Greg Thornton, Stacy Ray and Penelope Reed.
At This Evening’s Performance was initially read in 1982 as part of the McCarter’s series of staged readings of new plays. Last season, it moved to Stage Two, the theatre’s annual fall production of a new play, before finally making it to the mainstage this season. The move to the VMT is the first in what is hoped will be an ongoing program of exchanges between the two companies.
The House That Burt Built
The white sand beaches and welcoming sunshine of Sarasota, Fla., would seem stiff competition for any theatrical endeavors, and yet the popular vacation spot is a flurry of activity. Besides being home to Florida’s first official State Theatre—the Asolo—Sarasota will soon be the site of The Theater, a joint venture of Florida State University, the Florida State Foundation and actor Burt Reynolds.
A 10-acre site has been donated for the construction of the facility, and much of the estimated $10 million needed has already been raised, including $1 million from Reynolds himself.
The Theatre is to be a combination performance space, video studio and training center, with a unique tie-in to the worlds of television and film. Its 900-seat nonprofit theatre will be equipped with built-in television facilities, and plans call for plays to be recorded for national distribution on cable television. All funds from such sales would be funneled back into its artistic and educational programs.
The center will provide “post graduate experience and training for those who intend to enter the theatrical or entertainment profession,” according to Richard Fallon, who holds the Burt Reynolds Chair in Professional and Regional Theatre at Florida State, and who is a force behind the project. Says Fallon, “This facility should encourage the television and film industry to increase its production work in Florida.”
It is intended that the professional artists who comprise the theatre company will offer one-on-one training for actors and directors, while additional training in the technical aspects of TV and film will augment the program.
But while the lengthy birth process for The Theater is just beginning, its neighbor the Asolo State Theater is celebrating a milestone. This year marks its 25th season of operation, and to note the event, artistic director John Ulmer has chosen Death of a Salesman as its Silver Anniversary play. Playwright Arthur Miller and New York producer Robert Whitehead had to specially sanction the production, as rights have been tied up by the currently running Salesman on Broadway, starring Dustin Hoffman. In the Asolo production, directed by Ulmer and running through May 5, Willy Loman is played by Richard Fallon, who is Asolo’s executive director in addition to his duties at FSU.
A Stage of Their Own
New York’s Second Stage has, since its founding in 1979, been attempting to ameliorate what artistic director Robyn Goodman calls the “fast-food theatre trend,” whereby plays are produced once and then quickly forgotten. The theatre specializes in presenting plays of the past decade which might have been ahead of their time, not accessible to a wide audience, poorly publicized or obscured by inferior productions. The one thing that the Second Stage has never had is a stage of its own—until now.
On March 6, the doors of its new, permanent home opened on Manhattan’s upper west side. Dubbed the Walter McGinn/John Cazale Theatre in memory of two prominent actors, the theatre led off with a production of John O’Keefe’s All Night Long, directed by avant-garde pioneer Andre Gregory (late of My Dinner with Andre and numerous Dior advertisements).
The official opening celebration took place on March 12 at the theatre, with a gala benefit that pressed some of New York’s best known theatre personalities into service. Literally propped on top of the marquee for the opening ceremony were actors Meryl Streep and Marsha Mason and playwright Michael Weller, along with Second Stage co-artistic directors Robyn Goodman and Carole Rothman. A variety show included performances by Streep and Kevin Kline, Elizabeth McGovern, Sean Penn, Glenn Close, Mandy Patinkin, Patti LuPone, Mary Kay Place, Swoosie Kurtz, Kevin Conway, Christine Baranski and Barnard Hughes. As a special treat, producers Liz McCann and Nelle Nugent made their singing debuts and Joseph Papp of the New York Shakespeare Festival spoke about the contributions of McGinn and Cazale.
The Second Stage is currently presenting John Guare’s Landscape of the Body, directed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Gary Sinise. Landscape runs through May 20.
The Grunt Childe, which recently premiered at East West Players in Los Angeles, takes place in the last days of the Vietnam war, as a young front line soldier is put on trial for murder. When a well-known TV reporter televises the trial, the tables turn on the U.S. government, calling into question the morality of the war itself. Lawrence O’Sullivan’s provocative drama was directed by Dana Lee and featured Tex Donaldson, Ping Wu and Robert Curtin.
One of America’s best known and most prolific novelists, Joyce Carol Oates’ many titles include Them, Wonderland, A Garden of Earthly Delights, Angel of Light and the recently published Mysteries of Winterthur. Fewer people know her as a playwright, although her works have been produced in New York and elsewhere—among them, The Sweet Enemy and Sunday Dinner at the American Place Theatre, and Daisy at the Cubiculo Theatre. Last month, her most recent play premiered at New York’s Theater of the Open Eye. Presque Isle takes place in a Maine summer cottage, and explores the crises of a mother and daughter grappling with private problems. Sally Brophy directed a cast featuring Elizabeth Perry as the mother and Meg Van Zyl as her daughter.
While many theatres’ seasons are drawing to a close, their weary personnel looking forward to summers of rest and retrenchment, a few are just getting into full swing. Both the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre kick off new seasons this month.
A Contemporary, a 20-year-old company which specializes in offering area premieres of important new works, is currently presenting Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, directed by Jeff Steitzer. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, under the direction of Sharon Ott, is next, followed by Lanford Wilson’s Angels Fall, Fool for Love by Sam Shepard and Lynda Myles‘ Thirteen. The season ends next fall with The Communication Cord by Brian Friel, directed by Mel Shapiro.
The Guthrie opens May 10 with an innovative production entitled Hang On to Me, which combines Maxim Gorky’s Summerfolk with music by George and Ira Gershwin. The play is directed by Boston Shakespeare Company artistic director Peter Sellars, who also adapted the work.
The season continues with Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, directed by Guthrie artistic director Liviu Ciulei; Molière’s Tartuffe; and Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winner ‘night, Mother directed by Christopher Markle.
After its annual holiday production of A Christmas Carol, the Guthrie ends as it opened—on a musical note—with Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, directed by Garland Wright.
By Youth for Youth
Helping to celebrate Bermuda’s 395th anniversary year, the Umbrella Players of the Atlanta Children’s Theatre recently made their fourth trip to the island, performing for school children and the general public. But it was not simply a matter of one culture presenting itself to another; for four weeks the Players performed Video Bermuda, a production especially commissioned by the Bermuda Arts Council, and based on the best of more than 500 works submitted by Bermuda schoolchildren.
The 50-minute musical play was adapted by its director, Skip Foster, and original music based on the island’s own popular sound was added by Bob McDowell. Donald Evans, past chairman of the Bermuda Arts Council expressed his feeling that the collaboration of an American company with indigenous, original material from Bermuda was an exciting experience. “It is exceptionally fitting that it take place as part of our anniversary celebration,” added Evans.
Another youth-oriented company, the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, has also developed a play based on the writing of young people—and they too are taking it far from their Hawaii home-base.
Na Keiki Haku Mele O Ka’Aina translates as “The Children of the Land Are Poets,” and is the title of the theatre piece adapted and directed by Kathleen Collins. From May 27 through June 4, it will be performed at the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts in Albany, N.Y., as part of an exchange between the two companies. Last July, ESIPA company members traveled to Honolulu with a production of Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. Children’s workshops will also be offered as part of HTY’s Albany residency.
The influence of 1950s American culture on a turbulent Europe is the subject of Lars Noren’s Night Is Mother to the Day, staged recently at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. The original production at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm has been running for more than a year to sold-out houses, and its director, Goran Graffman, journeyed to Yale to direct the English language premiere, translated by Harry G. Carlson. Noren’s play takes place in a single day, in a provincial Swedish hotel where four family members confront one another and their mutual past.
For 10 years Berkeley Stage Company has, under the artistic direction of Angela Paton, brought new and unusual works of theatre to the Bay Area. It has now been forced by economic considerations to close its doors, and its loss will be felt by both artists and audiences hungry to experience the innovative, risky brand of theatre that was its hallmark.
Over the years, Berkeley Stage has produced the works of Albert Innaurato, Robert MacDougall, John Guare, Michel Tremblay, Michael McClure and its co-founder Drury Pifer, among many others. In recent seasons, its Theatre Festival of New Music has brought to life the latest developments in the burgeoning area of music theatre.
Other theatres in the area are faced with economic problems as well, including the Julian Theatre which cut short its 1983-84 season, but plans to reopen in fall.
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