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A roundup of productions from around the U.S.

Bedeviled Dumas

“Juggling and cheap theatrics” have always been the stock in trade of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, five very talented fellows who are fond of noting that they are neither brothers nor Russian. Last season, under the direction of Robert Woodruff, these “new vaudevillians” expanded their horizons to include acting in an extravagant, free-wheeling production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre (a production which is being revived for this summer’s L.A. Olympic Arts Festival). And now, they’re doing it again.

The Goodman is once more the site of a collaboration between Woodruff and the Karamazovs, who now tackle Dumas’ best-known novel , in a production entitled The Three Moscowteers. In an adaptation by Karamazov Paul Magid, the swash-buckling tale is set in Russia in the 1920s. Why Russia in the 1920s? Explains Woodruff, “It is a little known fact that the Russian army at that time contained a small band of variety performers who specialized in offbeat, agitprop material. The Karamazovs are basing their personae on these performers, and the central characters then become Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.”

Though Woodruff insists that the work is “decidedly theatre,” and not just a variety act, he adds that the working process is somewhat different from more conventional plays. “We started with a script and as much structure as possible—but then we left a lot to the performers’ particular skills.” He describes the way in which company members would throw out ideas, looking for the proper response from the others. “We were trying to decide how to do the swordfight and someone suggested rubber swords. No one laughed. Then someone else sais, ‘how about swordfish?’ and everyone laughed. We went with the swordfish.”

The Karamazovs have not given up their variety act, but according to Woodruff, working on plays presents them with a “new stretch, a challenge.” And, can they act? “Oh, yes.”

In addition to the Karamazovs, The Three Moscowteers includes a host of performers—15 from last year’s Comedy of Errors plus five more. Fifteen members of the cast are proficient jugglers, 12 are musicians, and “everyone sings,” adds Woodruff. The play runs June 1-July 8.

No Togas

“This play is very much caught up in the here and now,” remarked Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park artistic director Michael Murray, of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “I just felt white togas were too far away from us.” So Murray proceeded to mount a recent production of the classic that was decidedly “here and now.” Set in an imaginary third-world country where Caesar had just led a successful revolution, this play about what Murray terms “nitty gritty politics and who’s going to be the boss” featured Tom Mardirosian, as Caesar, and Jeremiah Sullivan as Brutus. Sets were by Karl Eigsti and costumes by Kurt Wilhelm. Not to be outdone, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre recently produced its own reinterpretation of Julius Caesar, this time set by director Robert Woodruff “sometime in the future,” and including a new-wave industrial setting by Mark Morton and eclectic Road Warrior costumes by Susan Hirschfeld (above). Advertisements for the unusual staging carried the following warning: “This production contains no columns, no togas, no laurel wreaths, without which some people are unable to view Julius Caesar.” Why the new takes on an old play? Perhaps the impending national elections have something to do with it.

Ode to Paranoia

New York City’s innovative and frequently controversial Wooster Group accepted an invitation from the Boston Shakespeare Company and its artistic director Peter Sellars to perform its new work, L.S.D. (Just the High Points), in Boston during April and May. The piece, which combines fragments of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with episodes from the drug-woozy career of ’60s guru Timothy Leary, earned superlatives from the Boston critics and generated some lively disagreement among audiences. Above, Willem Dafoe (who speaks the role of Puritan hero John Proctor), Nancy Reilly (in the guise of Leary’s tripped-out weekend babysitter) and Kate Valk (in blackface as the servant Tituba, accused of witchcraft in The Crucible) perform on a precariously tilted platform set designed by Jim Clayburgh. Director Elizabeth LeCompte says the company expects to re-open L.S.D. in late fall or early winter at its home theatre, the Performing Garage.

Delivering Letters

The term “regional theatre”—as applied to the widely various professional companies around the country—has been considered an epithet by many…or at the very least, condescending. But recently, some theatres have been taking the term quite literally and very much to heart, producing work of and about their regions. Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Pennsylvania Stage Company and others have nurtured and staged new plays based on the history of their respective areas, and now Lansing’s Boarshead: Michigan Public Theater has gotten into the act with the first statewide tour in its 18-year history—of a distinctly regional work.

Letter from Bernice, set in the upper peninsula of Michigan and co-written by Michigan native Jeanne Michels and Phyllis Murphy, premiered at the BoarsHead in 1981. The comedy-drama about three generations of
women and their ties to their hometown of Houghton, is based on the letters and personal experiences of its two authors. The April-May tour to Grand Rapids, Interlochen, Houghton and other cities featured Michigan-based actress Carmen Decker—a member of the Boarshead company since 1973—recreating the role she originated. Michels herself was also in the cast, under the direction of Barbara Carlisle, the company’s managing director.

Double Decker

You don’t have to have a second stage to design a second season. Baltimore’s Center Stage will prove it beginning in the fall, when it expands its format to include two full subscription series, totalling nine productions.

Playwrights 85, a separate three-play season interwoven with the regular mainstage schedule, will feature full productions of new works by American and European playwrights, early plays by known writers and revivals of plays that deserve reassessment by a contemporary audience. Although the Playwrights 85 series is not yet set, plays under consideration include Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge, Who They Are and How It Is with Them by Grace McKeaney, Strindberg’s The Pelican, O’Neill’s Welded, Miracle Play by Joyce Carol Oates and Jane Bowles’ In The Summer House.

“We’ve come to think of the two series as ‘apples and oranges’—equally appealing but obviously different,” comments artistic director Stan Wojewodski, Jr. “We are attempting to create a second theatre within the large one as an attempt to address a second aesthetic and establish a new body of work.” Separate subscriptions will be available for the new series and each play will run for six performances only.

Making Space

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,” wrote Peter Brook in an influential book that provided Seattle’s Empty Space theatre with its name, some 14 years ago. Since then, the company has occupied—and outgrown—two “empty spaces,” and will soon be occupying a newly renovated warehouse in the city’s downtown area.

The $1.3 million project is scheduled for completion in July, in plenty of time for the opening of its 15th season in the fall. Its 20,000 square feet will house both production and administrative facilities, including two rehearsal halls and a 225-seat, black-box theatre which retains the flexible staging capability that has become the trademark of the Empty Space.

The move is the culmination of a five-year search for a new site, after the limitations of its East Pike Street loft became apparent. For the past three years, the company has been mounting one play per season out-of-house, to accommodate audiences and specific production needs. The new facility joins businesses, offices and residences in Merrill Place, owned by the R.D. Merrill Company, which has entered into a 20-year lease with the Empty Space. A theatre is the perfect complement to. our multi-use project,” commented Earl Seaman, president of the development group responsible for Merrill Place. The design of the new theatre has been undertaken by Olson/Walker Architects.

Close Call

At the end of March, it looked as if the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s seventh annual Marathon of new one-act plays would have to be cancelled, based on lack of funds. Rehearsals were scheduled to begin April 3, but the company was $60,000 short with no corporate sponsors in sight. Then, thanks to a large 11th-hour donation from Grey Advertising and smaller gifts from the City Dept. of Cultural Affairs, Exxon and others, the Marathon was saved—and opened on schedule April 26.

Over the past six years, the Marathon has come to be known as an important showcase for the one-act form, along with the more recently established One-Act Play Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It has spawned such works as Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Open Admissions by Shirley Lauro. This year’s Marathon, running through June 18, consists of 16 new plays, performed in four evenings. Playwrights represented include Shel Silverstein, Ara Watson, Paul Rudnick, David Mamet and a host of others. Perhaps the most unusual work in this year’s festival is an adaptation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Double Insomnia

Jean Schiffrnan and Ric Prindle are having marital problems in Caryl Churchill’s Three More Sleepless Nights, running through June 23 at the One Act Theatre Company in San Francisco. The play, set in three South London bedrooms, was written between Churchill’s Cloud 9 and Top Girls. “As with any great playwright,” says actor Prindle (who is also the One Act’s artistic director), “there are hidden clues everywhere.” The production, under Richard Seyd’s* direction, is a U.S. premiere. On the same bill Prindle directs Terry Mack Murphy’s Last Call at Paradise Tavern.

Zarzuela, Anyone?

Since 1968, New York’s Repertorio Espanol has been presenting the Spanish and Latin American repertoire in its original language—with as many as nine plays running in repertory over a single season. And since last year, it has become a musical as well as a dramatic theatre, employing a resident flamenco dancer and exploring the unique form of the zarzuela, or Spanish musical. Above, Rene Sanchez, Mateo Gomez, Ofelia Gonzalez and Millie Santiago perform in Amandeo Vives’ zarzuela Dona Francisquita. Based on the Lope de Vega classic La Discreta Enamorada (The Discreet Lover), the production was conceived and directed by Repertorio artistic director Rene Buch, and is included in this month’s five-play schedule.

Arctic Antigone

Yup’ik Antigone, which premiered in Toksook Bay, Alaska last December under the aegis of the Perseverance Theatre, was the culmination of an unusual collaboration between playwright Dave Hunsaker and the local Eskimo village. Hunsaker blended indigenous dramatic traditions with the theatre of ancient Greece, turning Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old tragedy into a timeless ritual utilizing Eskimo legends, songs and dance.

Reception to the production was enthusiastic and widespread, garnering the company invitations from around the U.S. and abroad. Assuming that the necessary funds can be raised—the company is optimistic—Yup’ik Antigone will be performed as part of the Theatre of Nations Festival in Nancy, France this month, followed by a two-week run at La Mama E.T.C. in New York.

According to Hunsaker, some of the village elders of Toksook Bay are interested in accompanying the show to New York and participating in the ritual dances featured in the production.

Tell Me No Lies

The benevolence of a fairy with blue hair and the loneliness of an old woodcarver combine in bringing a little wooden puppet to life in Pinocchio, running through June 3 at The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. The most widely read children’s book in the world, this Pinocchio has been adapted by Timothy Mason, directed by CTC associate director Barry Goldman, and features the original score of Hiram Titus. Pinocchio was originally created in 1974 as the inaugural production of CTC’s newly opened facility. This year’s production marks the 100th anniversary of the story’s publication in a small, Italian magazine by the pseudonymous Collodi. Here, Pinocchio (Christopher Passi) is befriended by Carl Beck as the rascally Fox, and Cat, played by Tom Dunn.

One-Man Banjo

The longest running play in the history of Washington theatre began as a four-week engagement at Arena Stage’s Old Vat Room. It’s now well into its fourth year and going strong.

Banjo Dancing is a one-man extravaganza of music, dancing and tall tales performed by Stephen Wade, once described as “a genuine single-minded, ecstatic music freak with an all-consuming passion for playing.” He admits to it readily, but hastens to add that he is also a student of the American experience—its history, literature, music and people—all of which inform his unusual performances.

Subtitled “The 48th Annual Squitters Mountain Song Dance Folklore Convention…and how I lost,” Banjo Dancing began life as long ago as 1979, when it opened at Chicago’s Body Politic Theatre under the direction of Milton Kramer. (Chicago is Wade’s hometown, and the theatre gave him the go-ahead after an enthusiastic recommendation from his banjo teacher, the legendary Fleming Brown.) “It was like Cinderella,” Wade enthused in an interview for Banjo Newsletter. “The National Drama Critics convention was in town and many of them went to see the show. It got written up in national magazines and when Rosalyn Carter read about it, I was invited to play at the White House.”

The play ran for 57 weeks in Chicago, moving from the Body Politic to the Apollo Theatre, and when it closed it was still sold out. “We wanted to see if it was ephemeral, or just luck—so we wanted to move on,” explains Wade. Banjo Dancing was subsequently seen in Vancouver, Cleveland and New York, before settling in at Arena Stage where, according to Washington Post critic David Richards, it might be listed along with the Lincoln Memorial and the inaugural parade as one of the city’s enduring institutions.

CSC Reprieved

When lack of funds forced New York’s City Stage Company to close its doors last January, artistic director Christopher Martin vowed that they’d do everything possible to reopen and resume production before the season was over. Thanks to funding from Metropolitan Life Foundation, Pan American Airlines and some private donors, he’s keeping his word. CSC reopened on May 2, with a limited run of Strindberg’s Dance of Death directed by Martin and featuring Jerry Whiddon, Karen Sunde and Tom Spackman. All are past members of CSC’s repertory ensemble, though the theatre was forced to officially disband the company in January. It will take ongoing funding to enable CSC to rehire the acting company and resume performing in its customary rotating repertory for-mat. Toward that end, it is currently attempting to raise an additional $50,000. Dance of Death, which was scheduled to run through May 20, officially ends CSC’s 1983-84 season.

*Correction: The director of this production is actually Susan Marsden.

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