How would the South African people react if the Lord himself arrived in Johannesburg one day, via jumbo jet? That was the fantasy that South African actors Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema and director Barney Simon set out to explore several years ago, and the result was the now widely traveled Woza Albert! the play was originally created for Johannesburgs Market Theatre—one of the city’s few interracial institutions—and the two actors have been touring it internationally since 1982, to great acclaim, including an extended run in New York. With only a few props, including the small rubber noses the pair don when depicting white characters, Mtwa and Ngema use music, mime, satire, storytelling and slapstick to create the teeming, troubled world of the black South African experience. Woza Albert! can be seen at the Arena Stage in Washington through Oct. 7. It moves on to the Cricket Theatre in Minneapolis for performances Oct. 9-Nov. 10.
Buoyed by the rising tide of internationalism—set in motion by the Olympic Arts Festival, the O’Neill Center’s international playwrights’ conference and recent American visits by numerous foreign companies—several U.S. resident theatres have selected from the international repertoire for the coming season. And foreign plays don’t always require a translator—not if they’re from Ireland.
This month alone, two American theatres have chosen to sample the riches of contemporary Irish drama, offering their audiences U.S. premieres of plays by Ireland’s foremost working writers. South Coast Repertory of Costa Mesa, Calif., presents Thomas Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, and A Contemporary Theatre of Seattle ends its 20th season with Brian Friel’s The Communication Cord.
When The Gigli Concert opened at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, it was cited by one critic as “Ireland’s most important play since World War II.” Even given some critics’ tendencies to exaggerate, the praise piqued the interest of South Coast Rep’s two artistic directors, Martin Benson and David Emmes, who journeyed to the Emerald Isle to see the play when it was revived later in the season at the Abbey Theatre.
After cementing a deal to produce the play this fall, the two met with Thomas Murphy, a playwright who has a number of successes in his native Ireland (he is connected with a troupe in Galway known as the Druid Company), but who is virtually unknown in America. Murphy accepted an invitation to be in residence during the rehearsal period of the play at South Coast, and is currently working with the company and with Benson, who is directing.
“We’ve stretched our rehearsal period from the usual four weeks to six because the play is very demanding,” notes Benson, who describes The Gigli Concert as “densely textured.” The story owes a lot to Faust, which it echoes both in its plot and music, but its characters and setting are most definitely contemporary. The story revolves around a charlatan “self-help” practitioner who calls himself a dynamatologist, and a patient who comes to him obsessed with a desire to sing like the famous tenor Gigli. Each becomes a kind of devil’s advocate to the other, until their identities and obsessions meld in a kind of Mephistophelean bargain.
The Gigli Concert is something of a departure for South Coast Rep, which concentrates primarily on the production of new American works. “We decided that it didn’t matter who wrote it or where it was set,” says Benson. “This was a play we wanted to produce.” The play runs through Nov. 25.
In one of the Irish audiences who saw and liked The Gigli Concert at the Abbey was Brian Friel, now somewhat of an elder statesman among Irish dramatists, and much better known than Murphy in this country for such plays as Philadelphia, Here I Come and Translations. The Communication Cord, a companion piece to Translations, premiered at the Field Day Theatre in Derry, Ireland in 1982, moving on to successful production at the Hampstead Theatre in London.
Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre opens the American premiere of the farce on Oct. 25 under the direction of Mel Shapiro. (Northwest audiences had an opportunity to see its predecessor, Translations, last season at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.) The Communication Cord involves a series of misunderstandings and false identities, sending up the Irish middle-class inclination to adopt and sentimentalize the traditions of the peasantry. A graduate student in linguistics traps himself in a web of lies as he tries to impress his girlfriend’s father. The production, running through Nov. 17, carries on ACT’s tradition of bringing in new works from the British Isles to complement the most recent American plays. In the last several seasons, these have included Da, The Dresser, Educating Rita and Cloud 9.
As the ’84-85 season progresses, the accent continues to be Irish. In January, the Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk will present the American premiere of J.P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B., under the direction of artistic director Charles Towers. And in New York, the Roundabout Theatre will revive The Playboy of the Western World, the definitive Irish classic by its best-known playwright, J.M. Synge. Playboy is bound to sound authentic, as it will be guest-directed by Joe Dowling, artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
Bursting at the Seams
More than a dozen theatres across the country, their programs, audiences and ambitions bursting at the seams, will move into new quarters in 1984-85. Some will make their homes in renovated spaces—a warehouse, a union hall, a naval armory—and others will set up shop in new buildings or large-scale arts complexes.
Two theatres, the George Street Plavhouse of New Brunswick, N.J., and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, have made their moves after months of setbacks and construction delays. George Street’s move to the New Brunswick Cultural Center in the citv’s renovated YMCA building became official Sept. 13 with the opening of A Streetcar Named Desire, to be followed Oct. 21 with the first play of a new season, The Taming of the Shrew. The Alabama festival company has wrapped up its 13th and final season in Anniston and expects to set up housekeeping in its new $15 million theatre in Montgomery by May of 1985. Funds for the building, which consists of a 780-seat Festival Stage, a 280-seat Second Stage and full administrative and support space, were donated by former Postmaster General Winton Blount. The Festival is shooting for a late fall 1985 opening with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, the Empty Space is in the midst of renovations on a warehouse in the centrally located Pioneer Square development area. The $1.4 million project will provide administrative and technical space and a theatre designed by architect Olson Walker which allows for flexible seating and staging arrangements, and a potential for 300 seats. Financing by a number of major Seattle corporations has allowed the theatre to both run its capital campaign and move into the theatre without any financial hitch in plans.
After astronomical rent increases precipitated an extensive search throughout the New York area, the Roundabout Theatre Company will be opening its 19th season in a newly renovated building owned by the international Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Erected in 1928 as a home for Tammany Hall, the building has been redesigned by Roger Morgan and restored under the supervision of architect Robert Ascione to include an intimate 499-seat house and full support space. The official opening comes on Oct. 10 with Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer under the direction of Daniel Gerroll. Roundabout’s Stage Two, housed in the nearby Susan Bloch Theatre, will continue as a home for new plays, workshop productions and the company’s theatre conservatory.
The Manhattan Theatre Club, which began to outgrow its 150-seat main stage on 73rd Street five years ago, will open its ’84-85 season in a redesigned 300-seat house called The Space on the lower level of New York’s landmark City Center. Seating limitations in its former main stage prevented MTC from generating sufficient ticket income even when playing to capacity, and the theatre will now be able to expand both its audience and its box office revenues. City Center, a large, ornate Moorish building on West 55th Street, is a former Shriner’s mosque which also houses a consortium of leading dance companies, including Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailev. A grant from Bankers Trust Company is supporting the overhaul of The Space, which is under the supervision of scenic designer John Lee Beatty and lighting designer Dennis Parichy. The new main stage will debut in November with David Storey’s In Celebration, while the 73rd Street theatre continues to house MTC’s Second Stage, production shops and administrative offices.
Renovation and construction are also underway in Pennsylvania, where two theatres will open their ’84-85 seasons in new quarters. The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Theodore H. Hazlett, Jr. Theater is getting a facelift at a cost of approximately $495,000, with funds secured from private sources in the Pittsburgh area. As designed by LP. Perfido Associates, the renovation includes the installation of side and rear balconies, an expanded lobby and flexible seating units allowing for thrust, arena and proscenium staging. The theatre’s 10th anniversary season begins Sept. 25 with Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother.
In Malvern, The People’s Light and Theatre Company is preparing to take up residence in a new 15,000-square-foot technical and administrative home. The building, funded with grants from Southeast National Bank, Sun Oil Company, CBS, the Shubert Foundation and Atlantic Richfield Foundation, will replace the theatre’s old farmhouse administrative building, which the company plans to contract out for restaurant and housing space.
In Rochester, N.Y. an investment group has funded a $2.8 million renovation of that citv’s Naval Armory Building which will become the new home of the GeVa Theatre. The renovation, designed by Lawson Knapp & Pulver Architects, includes a 500-seat theatre (more than double the size of GeVa’s present space), a restaurant, a smaller cabaret space for experimental productions and support space. The theatre will delay the opening of its new season until the building is ready in December.
The Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre will officially change its name to the Los Angeles Theatre Center in spring 1985 to coincide with the opening of its new 75,000-square-foot arts complex. The $14-million space combines the renovated historic Security National Bank with 50,000 square feet of adjacent new construction and will include four theatres (499 seats, 323 seats, 299 seats and 99 seats), two restaurants, a 6,000-square-foot lob-by, an art gallery, bookstores and complete technical, administrative and rehearsal spaces. Plans are to open the new space with a production of Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana under the direction of Bill Bushnell.
The Delaware Theatre Company was forced to put its long-range building plans into high gear when the French Street Firehouse was suddenly bought out from under them. (The building was torn down within 30 days of the close of the theatre’s ’83-84 season.) With $900,000 in funds raised from private and public organizations, DTC has entered into a partnership with the city of Wilmington and Wilmington Waterways for renovation of a waterfront area which will include a new 15,000-square-foot structure combining theatre and support space. Designed by the firm of Mockel Carborall and Partners, the new quarters will open in the spring of 1985. In the meantime, the theatre will open its ’84-85 season in temporary quarters.
Washington’s Arena Stage has purchased a two-story building as a home for its community outreach venture, the Living Stage Theatre Company. Financed through the Commercial Real Estate Division of Riggs National Bank, the first floor will be renovated at a cost of $400,000 and will include housing for Living Stage’s administrative staff and a flexible performance space that allows for audiences of up to 150 seats.
Finally, in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater is preparing to begin renovations on the East Wells Power Plant in downtown Milwaukee which, in conjunction with the Pabst Theatre, will make up a downtown Milwaukee Arts District. In addition to a 750-seat main stage and a 200-seat second stage for the Rep, there will be a retail arcade and hotel and office space. At a cost of $83 million ($12 million of which is to be supplied by Milwaukee Rep), the complex is designed by the firm of Beckley Myers and is scheduled to open in time for the ’86-87 season.
For the first time in America, England’s Royal Shakespeare Company will perform two plays in rotating repertory at New York’s Gershwin Theatre, beginning Oct. 6. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing will alternate with Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, in a translation by Anthony Burgess. Derek lacobi and Sinead Cusack lead the company, taking on the roles of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado, as well as Cyrano and Roxane in the French poetic drama. The two productions, seen last summer in Los Angeles at the Olympic Arts Festival, bring the tally of RSC plays seen in the U.S. to 33. (In fact, of the company’s 200 major awards over nearly a quarter-century, 26 have been Tonys or New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.) Both Much Ado and Cyrano are directed by RSC joint artistic director Terry Hands. Of the difficult task of performing the two works in repertory, Hands commented, “We felt that maybe we should say to all our friends that this is the way we are; come and see us in our English format in your own country.”
The Beckett “explosion” in New York continues with the silver anniversary production of Endgame, featuring Alice Drummond, James Greene, Peter Evans and Alvin Epstein. Under Epstein’s direction, the play moved from the Samuel Beckett Theatre on New York’s Theatre Row to the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, the theatre at which it had its U.S. premiere 25 years ago. Avigdor Arikha designed sets and costumes.
Whom Do You Trust?
Political paranoia was the driving force in Arthur Miller’s durable 1953 drama The Crucible, and he has returned to the theme in The Archbishop’s Ceiling, a new play which will launch the Cleveland Play House’s 1984-85 season beginning Oct. 12.
The Crucible made its very contemporary point (about the hysteria of ’50s McCarthyism) by drawing parallels to the Salem witch trials of the Puritan Era. The Archbishop’s Ceiling explores some similar themes—the blurred lines between private and public politics, between loyalty and betrayal—in the modern setting of an unnamed Eastern European city. The play’s main character, an author who is considered an enemy by the state, must decide who to trust among his friends: an American who offers to help him flee to the U.S. and an actress who was once his mistress, among others. A version of the play was briefly produced in 1977, but Miller withdrew it. His new version was recently published in Great Britain, and the Cleveland production, under Richard Oberlin’s direction, is its first staging.
The Play House season will also include Love, a musical based on Murray Schisgal’s comedy Luv, adapted by Jeffrey Sweet, opening Nov. 30; and the premiere of The Waiting Room, a new play by English playwright Catherine Muschamp set in Berlin in 1917 and dealing with two soldiers assigned to accompany Lenin’s train to the Russian frontier, opening Oct. 19.
Up to the Neck
In the final scene of the Omaha Magic Theatre’s X-Rayed-iate: E-Motion in Action, running Oct.
19-29 and Nov. 2-5, two actors are buried up to the neck in a heap of sand while they sing “I’ve Got You Where I Want You.” It’s an effect, one reviewer pointed out, that even Busby Berkeley never thought of.
The sand (some two tons of it) is part of designer Sora Kim’s “walk-through environment” for the piece. There’s also a 10-foot tall transparent pyramid filled with flying puffs of white styrofoam, a green grow-light installation for performers with flower pot heads, and a giant air harp suspended on fishline from the ceiling.
What happens in this wonderland? “It exercises the audience’s eyes, ear and inner world,” claims Jo Ani Schmidman, who conceived, directed and choreographed the evening. “As they walk through, the audience can choose where to focus—they can view the entire spectacle from a distance or move close to a performer in a specific installation. We’ve made the theatre into a platform for emotional expression.”
Omaha audiences so far seem to like the idea. A four-day run of the show in July was a sell-out, so dates in October and November were added. Schmidman collaborated on the text with playwright-in-residence Megan Terry, and John J. Sheehan, Joe Budenholzer and Jerry Kazakevicus composed music which they perform on three synthesizers.
Los Angeles has long been known as a city with an auto addiction. Its wheel-mania has been analyzed and satirized—and now it has been celebrated—in a unique collaboration between the Mark Taper Forum and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
Carplays was the umbrella title of a three-day festival that took place over Labor Day weekend in various locations around L.A. and included theatre, visual performance, dance, music—even a museum exhibit.
Events included Adjusting the Idle, a new experiment in “walkmanology” by Chris Hardman and Antenna 20 Theater (audiences donned portable walkmen and moved through six rooms depicting such subjects as “Pullover Paranoia”; Canopy at an Intersection, a new avant-garde dance piece by Rudy Perez with Susan LaTempa and Paul Dunlap; two vignettes from 1961 Eldorado by Elizabeth Ruscio and Leon Martell, in which audiences were invited on a freewheeling, musical journey into California as the land of gold and plenty; a new “rap” piece by Rachel Rosenthal entitled Kab-baLAmobile, which combined the stunts of Tom Anthony’s Precision Driving Team with a text drawn from cabalistic literature, the Book of Creation and various magazines.
Other events included Spalding Gray’s A Personal History of My Car, a combination monologue and interview; Shelley Berc’s Dual Heads, an epic poem tracing the love affair between a woman and a red-and-white ’57 Chevy; and a museum exhibit entitled Automobile and Culture, which comprises 200 works of art and more than 30 artistically altered cars tracing the visual and sociological impact of the automobile.
A Carplays Parade kicked off the festival on Sept. 1—and in true L.A. tradition, a special Carplays Bus was available for service between event locations.
One critic called her a “slinky cross between Bacall and Bogart, with a dash of Bruce Lee and Clint Eastwood.” She’s none other than Scar Tissue, the intrepid lady private eye created by Joan Schirle and the Dell’Arte Players Company of Blue Lake, Calif. Scar, played by Schirle, first appeared in the troupe’s successful Intrigue at Ah-Pah, and here confers with an ally known as Deep Trout in its latest work, The Road Not Taken. The heroine battles against the greed, violence and corruption surrounding the struggle for one of our continent’s last wilderness areas.
Schirle is joined by her co-artistic directors Michael Fields and Donald Forrest in major roles, and Jael Weisman directs. Dell’Arte’s fall touring schedule for The Road Not Taken includes performances in Richmond, Va., and San Francisco, Napa, Berkeley and Sacramento, Calif.
Shakespeare’s lovers were never so much at home as at the Mount, Shakespeare & Company’s outdoor amphitheatre on the grounds of Edith Wharton’s Massachusetts estate. After a summer of performing Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this idyllic setting, the company decamped for a September stint at the Prospect Park Theatre in Brooklyn. Beginning Oct. 9, the troupe takes the two plays, both directed by artistic director Tina Packer, on an extensive tour of the Northeast, going on to Nashville and Cleveland before taking its winter hiatus. Here, Natsuko Ohama as Titania and Kevin Coleman as Oberon work their wiles while the two pairs of unsuspecting lovers doze in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
‘Tom Jones’ on Wheels
Looming metal cranes, rumbling railroad carts and other heavy equipment—and several tons of Texas dirt—were the raw materials for innovative designer Eugene Lee’s construction-site set for the Dallas Theater Center’s recent production of Tom Jones. Lee and DIC technical director Gail DeBaik went driving around Dallas to find the things they needed. “Stop here! That’s it!” Lee yelled as they spotted a jumble of long “retired” equipment on the grounds of Austin Industries, one of Texas’ leading construction companies. “We didn’t know why he wanted that old stuff,” confessed Austin president William T. Solomon, but Lee’s enthusiasm convinced him that a donation was in order, and he and other Austin workers were duly impressed when they were later invited to attend the show in DTC’s new Arts District Theater. The musical play, adapted from Henry Fielding’s famous novel and directed by Larry Arrick, brought Austin officials back for repeat visits, inviting local businesspeople and friends as company guests. Lee, whose design work has ranged from the classics to the set of TV’s Saturday Night Live, will be the subject of an upcoming cover story in American Theatre.
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