Playwrights have been making fruitful use of the play-within-the-play since drama began—Shakespeare wasn’t the first to exploit the device, and Pirandello wasn’t the last. In The Hands of Its Enemy, which ran through Oct. 28 at the Mark Taper Forum, playwright Mark Medoff gives the play within his play a compelling new dimension—it becomes an act of self-exorcism for Medoff’s protagonist, a deaf playwright played by Phyllis Frelich.
Theatre about theatre can be a complex business, but in The Hands of Its Enemy that complexity is multiplied by the use of American Sign Language—both the play and the play-within-the-play are sign-interpreted as part of the action. In rehearsals, Medoff testifies, the company wasn’t always sure what was play and what was real life.
“There I was, the father of the whole thing.” he says, “and then there was Phyllis, the mother of the play-within-the-play on stage. The director of the play, Gordon Davidson, was also directing the play-within-the-play, but Richard Dreyfuss was portraying the director of the play-within-the-play. And Robert Steinberg, the interpreter within the play, and Jean Worth, the company interpreter, at times got confused as to who was supposed to be interpreting what.”
If that sounds disconcerting, put yourself in actor Tom Henschel’s shoes: He was playing the stage manager of the play-within-the-play, and was frequently approached by the cast for company stage management needs. “This eerie sense of confusion has been a source of amusement, and sometimes amazement, to all of us,” Medoff reports.
As in his earlier work Children of a Lesser God, Medoff deals in Enemy with the harsh reality of human failings and frailties. And he has once again drawn a tentative, fine line of hope into his picture. Marita, the playwright played by Frelich, confronts the guilt, fear and remorse of an abused childhood through the creation of a play. Her director Howard, played by Dreyfuss, pushes her to the edge of the truth about her past.
Medoff notes that Enemy almost didn’t make it out of the dark corner of a bureau drawer where he stashed it shortly after it was written some three years ago. His wife Stephanie (“my most revered and trusted critic”) hadn’t been wildly enthusiastic at the time, and the playwright was doubtful about the play’s dark theme. It was only after a subsequent play, The Homage the Followed, couldn’t be finished in time to meet a rehearsal date last January that Medoff, with great reluctance, pulled out Enemy for a second reading.
The verdict from Stephanie, as well as collaborators Frelich and Steinberg, was positive, and Enemy went into rehearsal at New Mexico State University, where Medoff heads the drama department. When it was time to move the play to higher ground, he headed back to director Davidson and the Taper, where the Tony Award-winning Children of a Lesser God had premiered in 1979.
“There’s been a good relationship between the Taper company and my work from the first day,” Medoff declares. “The chemistry is just right. Back when we first started workshopping Children—when there were about 16 characters and the play was running three hours—Gordon came to me and said, ‘My job, as I see it, is to get inside your head and try to drive you where you think you want to go.’ That’s what happened with Children, and so it goes with this new play.”
Passion and Pageantry
To claim that there’s something for every theatrical taste in American Repertory Theatre’s eclectic 1984-85 season would be, at best, an understatement. There are prominent literary names on the Cambridge theatre’s lineup (Susan Sontag, Milan Kundera), there are avant-gardists (Robert Wilson, JoAnne Akalaitis) and there are classicists, old and new (Shakespeare, Beckett). There’s even an 18th-century fabulist (Carlo Gozzi, Puccini’s collaborator on the opera Turandot) whose magical fairy tale The King Stag is being billed as a “surprising spectacle recommended for the whole family.”
Such something-for-everyone variety doesn’t mean that the season is less than, in artistic director Robert Brustein’s word, “ambitious and challenging.” The little-known Gozzi work, which opens the season Nov. 23, will be directed by Andrei Serban, who previously staged Sganarelle and an innovative Three Sisters for the ART company. Brustein promises “Passion, pageantry and commedia dell’arte hijinks,” as well as a new translation of Gozzi’s tale and original music.
Beckett’s Endgame, directed by Akalaitis (whose work on Beckett with Mabou Mines has earned both general acclaim and the playwright’s own approval), will join the repertoire on Dec. 7. There will be a specially commissioned score from another Mabou Mines veteran, composer Philip Glass.
Critic-turned-director Sontag and novelist-turned-playwright Kundera will join forces on the American premiere of Jacques and His Master, a comedic variation on the novel by Diderot which was glowingly received in Paris in 1981-82. Kundera’s play, opening Jan. 11, is a celebration of freedom in all its forms—social, sexual, artistic, political. Sontag, who has directed several theatre productions in Europe, will be making her American directorial debut.
Another debut—the first presentation in the country of Act IV, Scene A, and the Epilogue of Robert Wilson’s multi-national epic the CIVIL warS—follows Feb. 22-Mar. 17. This self-contained segment of Wilson’s large-scale work features a text by East German playwright Heiner Muller, and is produced at ART in association with Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
Shakespeare’s early play Love’s Labour’s Lost, staged in the form of an Edwardian charade, under the direction of ART company actor Jerome Kilty, rounds out the season beginning May 10.
Cyril Tourneur’s bloody Jacobean drama, The Revenger’s Tragedy, erupted twice across the country this past month. In Ashland, Jerry Turner’s production of the macabre tragedy closed the Oregon Shakespearean Festival’s 1984 season. Featuring John David Castellanos and Allen Nause, right, the play ran in repertory with Hay Fever, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance. In Wisconsin, Daniel Mooney, Kenneth Albers and Rose Pickering battled it out in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s first production of the ’84-85 season. Directed by Sharon Ott, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the show featured original “Neo-Renaissance” music by Mark Van Hecke.
Kentuckian Wendell Berry is writer and a farmer whose 18 books include novels, poetry and non-fiction collections. As of this month, he’s a playwright, too—his one-act play The Cool of the Day is one of 12 new short works being presented through Nov. 18 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s ’84 Shorts Festival.
Berry’s ballad-like play is set on the front porch of a farmhouse where a dying man’s family gathers to talk about the mysteries of life and death. Its companion pieces in the festival run the gamut from wild farce to stark drama, and some of the writers, like Berry, are well known in circles outside the theatre.
Roy Blount, Jr., the popular humorist and a veteran of last year’s festival, will offer That Dog Isn’t Fifteen, an outlandish view of the effect of television on average Americans. The novelist Christopher Davis has contributed Private Territory, about a young American writer and a worldly Italian philanthropist in conflict.
More familiar theatrical names on the agenda include Jane Martin, with Summer, about a girl from the East on a Montana ranch; Patrick Tovatt, with I’m Using My Body as a Roadmap, set in an Australian hotel; Romulus Linney, whose The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks is about a military inquiry into the death of an American general and his wife; and Gary Leon Hill, who collaborated with Jo Hill on The Black Branch, a startling view of the inhabitants of a state-run mental hospital.
The plays are being presented in five bills at ATL’s Victor Jory Theatre.
NYSF’S Gold Rush
The Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s—a time of risky ventures, colorful characters and boundless energy—is the setting for Michael Weller’s The Ballad of Soapy Smith, the opening production of Joseph Papp’s 1984-85 season at the New York Shakespeare Festival. It could serve as well as an emblem for the theatre’s project-packed 1984-85 season.
Weller’s 33-character tale (commissioned and first presented last season by Seattle Repertory Theatre and staged in New York with the same director, Robert Egan, and lead actor, Denis Arndt) was followed by Wilford Leach’s staging of La Boheme with singer Linda Ronstadt (scheduled to open Oct. 30). If Ronstadt’s serious opera debut qualifies as a “risky venture,” her fellow stars on the season lineup fill the bill as “colorful characters”—Jessica Tandy, Kate Nelligan, Sigourney Weaver. And the balance of Papp’s announced agenda is a testimony to “boundless energy.” The projects include an Albert Innaurato comedy Coming of Age in Soho about the crisis in the life of a successful woman composer, directed by the playwright; Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, featuring Durang and Weaver under Jerry Zaks’ direction; Britisher David Hare’s A Map of the World, a drama set at a UNESCO conference in India, directed by the playwright; Louise Page’s Salonika, featuring Tandy as an octogenarian widow who visits her husband’s grave in Greece, under John Madden’s direction; Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, featuring Nelligan in the title role of Virginia Woolf, staged by David Leveaux; and a collection of eight mini-musicals, dubbed Ten-Minute Musicals, slated for the spring under Leach’s direction.
The lineup is the heaviest Papp has announced in several seasons. His recent production of Nest of the Woodgrouse by Soviet dramatist Victor Rozov is currently running in Washington, D.C., as a co-production with the Kennedy Center, with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson reprising their New York roles.
The New York Puppet Festival is in full swing during the month of November at the Museum of the City of New York. Every Saturday afternoon through April, professional puppeteers from across the country will show their skills with puppets, marionettes, ventriloquism and masks.
November’s productions include a mixture of legends, fantasy and comedy for children age three and up. On Nov. 3, Pegasus Productions will present Fanfare, a variety show with hand and rod puppets and marionettes, followed on Nov. 10 by Puppets Unlimited’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. On Nov. 17, Nifty Puppeteers will present their adaptation of the Chinese legend The Golden Moon, while on Nov. 24, the Donna Rose Puppets will combine puppetry, ventriloquism and audience participation in Penelope Pilgrim and Topsy Turvey Turkey. December’s productions will include the Royal Puppet Theatre’s The Mystery of the Magic Elves and the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre’s Christmas production, An Unmarked Present.
This year’s festival will also include two sign-interpreted performances by Deanie Heller, senior sign language interpreter for the New York City Board of Education. Heller will interpret Nov. 17’s The Golden Melon and April 12’s The Crowded House by Nifty Puppeteers.
Clent Bowers (right) is the gluttonous Rhino in Pennsylvania Stage Company’s world premiere of Just So, a musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. A mixture of fantasy and fable with a pop-contemporary score,
Just So ran through Oct. 19 at the Allentown Theatre. It was conceived and directed by Julianne Boyd with book by Mark St. Germain, lyrics by David Zippel and music by Doug Katsaros.
The graceful traditions and contemporary innovations of the Eastern arts are being showcased in New York City in the Asia Society’s 1984-85 Asian Festival Series, a collection of music, dance and theatre events from various Asian cultures. The festival includes Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Indian performances, ranging from new music and dance to traditional puppet theatre.
Highlighting the festival will be the choreography of Ohad Naharin on Nov. 16 and 17 in a multi-media collaboration inspired by the contemporary calligraphy of Wang Fang yu and based on the 8th century Chinese nature poetry of Wang Wei.
The performance also includes the music of Robert Ruggieri. On Nov. 17, dancer Hung-Yen Hu will perform and explain the elaborate make-up, costumes and dance patterns of the Pekin Opera.
Later in the festival line-up, Asian puppet theatre will be the focus. On April 20, composer Robert Moran will perform his one-man show Through Cloud and Eclipse using Javanese shadow puppets. On May 11, puppeteers Catherine Larue and Jean-Luc Penso of the Théâtre du Petit Miroir will demonstrate the 2,000 year-old art of Fujian glove puppets in a program which includes The Sacking of the Celestial Palace.
Roaring Through the Sea
It took almost eight years for Stephen Sondheim’s adventurous, cult-favored musical Pacific Overtures to reappear in New York following its original Broadway run in 1976. When the music-oriented York Theatre Company staged a well-received revival last March—on something of a smaller scale than Harold Prince’s extravagantly appointed production—it quickly became the hottest ticket in town. The Shubert Organization was duly impressed, and on Oct. 12 the York’s re-mounted production began performances at the Promenade Theatre under the Shubert aegis. Fran Soeder (who was Prince’s production assistant on Sweeney Todd, and has staged other Sondheim works in New York and Cleveland) will again direct, and the 19-member, predominantly Asian-American cast will be headed by Ernest Abuba. James Morgan’s scenic design, glimpsed above, reflects the musical’s blending of Eastern theatre techniques with those of the American musical stage, in telling the story of Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan in 1853 and the consequences of that event today.
Fire in the Attic
Disaster struck. An early Sunday morning fire swept through Detroit’s Attic Theatre in late July, destroying, among other things, all the costumes for the theatre’s production of the musical Strider, three weeks into a seven-week run. The show went on—Strider was relocated to the nearby Fox Theatre—and now, more than three months later, the Attic and its audiences are gamely making the best of a tough situation.
Prior commitments at the Fox meant that the Attic couldn’t settle in for long—the homeless company is now performing at the New Center Theatre, a former movie house, where Laurence Carr’s Kennedy at Colonus runs through Nov. 25. Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God will follow there Dec. 14-Jan. 13, but beyond that the future is uncertain. Attic managing director Eric Dueweke says hopes are high that the fire-damaged downtown building will be habitable again in a few months. “We feel that the chances of moving back are very good,” he ventures.
If You Knew Tzu Hsi
It’s producing artistic director Robert Kalfin’s first season with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and he’ll be covering a lot of ground. Ruth Wolff’s Empress of China, an elaborate production dealing with Tzu Hsi, the 19th-century ruler of China who brought the country to the brink of disaster, started things off (it ran through Oct. 28), and Kalfin will go on to direct Chekhov’s The Seagull, Beth Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and the American premiere of the Hungarian drama Have by Julius Hay. Is there an organizing principle behind those varied choices?
“I’m just doing plays that contribute to the breadth of the theatre, whether they are new American plays, translations, world premieres or adaptations,” insists Kalfin, who founded the Chelsea Theatre Center in New York in 1965. “The big difference for me is that this year I finally get to direct Chekhov!”
Aside from Kalfin’s own directorial projects, Playhouse audiences will be sampling two new musicals, Amateurs (loosely based on the aforementioned Chekhov play), with book and lyrics by Winnie Holzman and music by David Evans; and Paradise, with book and lyrics by George Woolfe and music by Robert Forest. Both musicals were developed in New York University’s Musical Theatre Program, with which Kalfin is associated.
And, running through Nov. 18 in the Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre, will be Joan Kemp Welsh’s production of Michael Picardie’s Shades of Brown, which was first produced by Kalfin and Woodie King, Jr. at New York’s New Federal Theatre.
It seems to be a relationship that works. Buoyed by the success of their 1983 co-production of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime, New York’s La Mama ETC and Syracuse Stage are once again working in collaboration to put the ubiquitous playwright on the boards. The theatres are co-producing a Shepard festival, including Angel City, Suicide in B Flat and Back Bog Beast Bait, to be performed in repertory at La Mama Nov. 16-Dec. 9 and in Syracuse Jan 15-Feb. 10. All three productions are directed by George Ferencz, who won critical kudos for his high-energy staging of the 1983 production.
The festival will also feature the contributions of set designer Bill Stabile, who has designed an all-purpose environmental set for the festival, and jazz great Max Roach, who has composed original jazz, blues and Cajun music for each of the pieces.
Seven years in the lives of the workers and owners of a tailor shop in Paris are glimpsed in Jean-Claude Grumberg’s The Workroom, chosen by French critics as the best play of 1979. An American version by Daniel A. Stein with Sara O’Connor runs through Oct. 7 at the People’s Light and Theatre Company of Malvern, Pa., with Brenda Wehle and Tom Teiti under Michael Nash’s direction. Wehle portrays Simone, whose husband was deported by the Nazis during World War Il, leaving her to seek employment and find a new “family” among her fellow seamstresses in the workroom. Patricia Woodbridge designed the shop-worn set.
The Boston Shakespeare Company’s 1984-85 season includes two Shakespeare plays, both directed by guest artistic director Tina Packer—who has had ample experience with the Bard in her role as founder and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. Packer, who maintains her post with the Lenox-based company while in residence at Boston Shakespeare, directs The Comedy of Errors, opening Nov. 27, and Richard II, opening Feb. 28. Packer points out, “In the last year, Boston Shakespeare Company has gained a reputation for excitement and experiment,” but adds that she intends to bring her own “thoroughly classical approach to Shakespeare.” Other plays in the season include Uncle’s Dream by Dostoevsky, directed by Timur Diordjadze, and The Glass Menagerie.
The Los Angeles-based East West Players has announced an ambitious roster of plays for its ’84-85 season—the greatest number of titles, in fact, in its 19-year history. The four mainstage productions include Philip
Kan Gotanda’s A Song for a Nisei Fisherman; two West Coast premieres by Asian American writers based in New York (Ernest Abuba’s An American Story and Margaret Lamb’s Monkey Music); and a perennial favorite, Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. In addition, the company will produce four new plays by women in its Works in Progress series, as well as eight readings of new plays from writers around the country, bringing the final tally to 16 works by the energetic troupe.
A.R. Gurney, Jr.’s widely produced play, The Dining Room, concerns the habits and mores of the American WASP. Some would say that only Americans could truly appreciate it—but not INTAR artistic director Max Ferra, who recently directed a Spanish translation of the play in Paraguay, using professional Paraguayan actors. Ferra’s visit, sponsored by the United States Information Agency, was multi-purpose: to promote inter-American relations, to give South American actors an opportunity to work with an American text and director, and to give Ferra an opportunity to seek out playwrights he might produce in the U.S. The Dining Room (or El Comedor) was translated by Mario Diament, and played to packed houses in Asuncion, Paraguay.
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