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New works and auspicious revivals, theatre closures, a home for playwrights, and more.

Design for Literacy

Two words come up more than any others when talking with Marlene Swartz, co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s Soho Repertory Theatre. One of those words is “eclectic”—and a look at the theatre’s season, which includes a British adaptation of a Balzac novel, a new American play, a new musical adaptation of a Richard Wright short story and a work of Shakespeare—justifies that adjective immediately.

The other word is the simple pronoun “we.” In Swartz’ case, “we” most often refers to her and her creative partner Jerry Engelbach, who have been making theatre together in downtown Manhattan for 10 years; “we” as in, “We’ve never, ever done one single play in all the 98 or so productions that we’ve done that we didn’t believe strongly was an intrinsically good play, really worth doing.” A strong statement perhaps, but then it takes a certain amount of strength to run a small “regional” theatre when your region happens to be New York City. It is their deeply felt joint sense of purpose that has fueled the two in the face of fierce competition for audiences and funding, the lure of commercial transfers and the difficulty of enticing potential theatregoers away from their video recorders.

“We’re looking for challenging plays that respect the audience’s intelligence—even to the point of being willing to confuse them,” says Swartz. “We’re not experimental in the way the Wooster Group or Squat Theatre are; we do plays. What ties them all together, I guess, is our admiration for language and theatricality and literacy.” To illustrate, Swartz describes Soho’s current season, which got a tardy start just last month when an exorbitant rent raise forced the theatre to move.

“We began this year with Nicholas Wright’s The Crimes of Vautrin, which was devised from Balzac in collaboration with England’s Joint Stock Company. It’s very dark—a sort of a nasty Nicholas Nickleby—about a 19th-century French con artist, prostitutes, bankers, detectives. Wright, who has been a real mover behind the recent British playwriting movement (he was a literary manager at the National Theatre, and the first director of the experimental Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court), came here and rewrote the entire second act for us.

“Our second play, which opens March 15, is Mac Wellman’s Energu-men. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if Kierkegaard wrote a film noir script. Using very specialized language and a non-linear structure, it revolves around a detective, and lots of double and triple betrayals.

“After that comes something we’re very excited about,” notes Swartz with animation. “Almos’ a Man, from Richard Wright’s short story, came out of a Musical Theatre Workshop we’d been doing, to help find new, non-traditional voices in music theatre. After doing it in workshop, we decided to produce it. Jerry and I are both great Wright fans, and Paris Barclay’s musical adaptation retains all of Wright’s very moving coldness and anger.”

The last production will be The Winter’s Tale, and anyone who thinks that Shakespeare is a surefire house-packer will find out otherwise from Swartz. “We’re doing it in spite of the fact that people tend to shun an Off Broadway Shakespeare production. Our approach is not ‘RSC Shakespeare,’ but we also don’t do ‘contemporary urban prostitute’ Shakespeare. I guess the best way to put it is that we rely on the play itself.”

“The distance we’ve come is the most interesting part,” comments Swartz, “even though after 10 years we still have only a $150,000 budget. It all revolves around the fact that most of the theatre we see—and not just on Broadway—is television. We feel that even a small theatre can do a lot more than that. When we started, it was just so that the two of us would have a place to direct plays we believed in. We didn’t have any funding at the time, so we did the classical ‘hits’: Molière, Shaw, Ibsen. But to make it more fun, we did the lesser known works by these authors: Coriolanus or The Master Builder.

“Over the years, our tastes have changed, but our goals haven’t. Now we produce playwrights people may not have heard of, like Mac Wellman or Len Jenkin. We may have lost some subscribers along the way, but we’ve attracted some new ones—and I feel as if they have real minds.”

Though she insists that plays are selected without regard to the nationalities of their authors, Swartz is pleased that this year’s roster includes two new American works. “I wouldn’t go so far as to choose a play because it’s American, but I’m so glad when we find one. The reason is, in other countries, there’s an enormous amount of support for non-traditional playwriting. But if you’re a non-naturalistic playwright here—like Wellman, like Len Jenkin, like Eric Overmyer, like Jeffrey Jones—it’s next to impossible to get produced.”

Moving to a new space—a 100-seat thrust theatre in Bellevue Hospital—seems an appropriate occasion for summing up and looking ahead. Artistically, Swartz and Engelbach feel they’ve grown, and their audiences have grown with them—or at least “learned to roll with the punches, put aside their expectations.” The funding situation continues to be the largest frustration. Says Swartz, “We’re getting a little old and burned out for this. It’s just a mystery what funding sources look for, and we’re competing with 200 other theatres in the area. On the other hand, we’ve developed a nice list of corporate supporters. We’re coming to rely on small amounts from a number of sources.

As far as ticket prices are concerned, any New Yorker who pleads poverty as a reason to stay home from the theatre hasn’t investigated Soho Rep. Two seats to four shows cost a paltry

 40 at the subscriber rate. “We’re committed to low ticket prices,” says Swartz, “especially as the economy gets tighter and tighter. And we want subscribers because when you subscribe, you go to theatre more, and we want our seats filled. There’s no point in doing work you’re proud of to an empty house. Even if money is no problem.”

In conclusion, Swartz notes, “I don’t mean to imply that we’re alone in what we do. We’re just a part of a pocket of nut cases out there—along with the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco and Theatre X in Milwaukee and others—who want to provide alternatives. There are still people who want alternatives.”

—Laura Ross

Shaw and More Shaw

Like Sidney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the hero of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple is hauled off to the gallows in another man’s place. That chestnut of a plot didn’t keep Shaw’s eighth play from becoming his first box office success in 1897—and its enduring melodramatic appeal was demonstrated in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s recent production, which ran through Feb. 17 under John Dillon’s direction*. Daniel Mooney, in a tight spot above, played the rascal Richard Dudgeon; Hugh Landwehr designed the Revolution-era sets. Concurrently, Washington, D.C. audiences relished the Shavian retelling of the Don Juan legend, Man and Superman, at Arena Stage. Douglas C. Wager directed; from left, John Leonard, François de la Giroday and Henry Strozier were the male contingent in Shaw’s battle of sexual wills.

Will and Mae in Washington 

The newly established American National Theatre will open March 23 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre with Henry IV, Part 1, a play which the new company’s brash young director Peter Sellars characterizes as “really, a show about Washington, D.C.”

“It is very important to raise the level of political discourse here, to have a poet, not an ad agency or a propagandist, tell us where we stand as a nation,” Sellars told The Washington Post. “I want to reclaim Shakespeare for Americans.”

That aspiration was one of several goals set forth by Sellars in a late January announcement of his theatrical agenda for the coming season—and, in general terms, for the next five years. The wide-ranging plans for the company include lowering ticket prices, importing productions to Washington from theatres throughout the country and establishing a free experimental theatre. Sellars, 27, was hired seven months ago by Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens and given “carte blanche” to shape the theatre company, an institution some hope could become America’s answer to the National Theatre of Great Britain or the Comédie Française. Like those theatres, the American National Theatre will be heavily subsidized—although there is no government funding committed at this time, and the Kennedy Center suffered a $1.8 million deficit last year. To meet the $6 million first-year budget, Sellars expects to depend heavily on philanthropic contributions. “We’ll be reinventing how theatre is financed,” he added.

In addition to Shakespeare’s history play, the first season will include the 19th-century melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, which served as a star vehicle for James O’Neill, father of the playwright; and Mae West’s previously unproduced comedy with a Washington setting, Come On Over.

Beginning in May, the Center’s midsized Terrace Theatre will become a home for productions imported from or developed with other theatres across the country, according to Sellars. The Theatre Lab will be renamed the Free Theatre, and, also starting in May, is scheduled to open its experimental productions without charge to the public. The Center’s traditional subscription plan will be scrapped in favor of $75 and $100 memberships to the basic season, and ticket prices will drop (from a top of $30) to $20 and $10.

Sellars named Elizabeth LeCompte, artistic director of Manhattan’s Wooster Group, and his frequent collaborator Timothy S. Mayer as two associate directors of the theatre. A 20-member artistic board includes the performance artists Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson, La Mama founder Ellen Stewart, directors Elia Kazan and Orson Welles, and entertainer Harry Belafonte.

Sellars’ plans were generally hailed by theatre professionals nationwide, although many expressed reservations about the new company’s identity as a national theatre. “There is a

national theatre, and it consists of a network of nonprofit theatres throughout the country,” pointed out Robert Brustein, artistic director of American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. Rep. Sidney Yates (D-IL), who sits on the Kennedy Center’s board of trustees, echoed Brustein’s reservations—“This country is too big to have a national theatre,” he said—but added that he looks forward to the Kennedy Center becoming “more adventurous and more of a national guiding spirit.”

Southern Hospitality 

Many Americans first heard the word “Humana” in connection with William Schroeder’s artificial heart—but for anyone connected with the theatre, it’s been something of a household word for years, as in Humana Festival of New American Plays. This season marks the ninth annual Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and as usual, the theatre’s two stages are alive with a wide range of work—seven full-length and four one-act plays—many addressing the issues of the region. Among the playwrights are returning veterans Lee Blessing, James McLure, Murphy Guyer and Gary Leon Hill; new faces Rebecca Alworth, Larry Larson, Levi Lee, Heather McDonald, Ellen McLaughlin and J.F. O’Keefe; and two writers represented by their very first plays: Frank Manley and Bruce Bonafede.

If, in the movies, this has been the year of the farmer, it’s no new trend at a theatre like ATL, whose playwrights have often addressed the concerns of the small-town and rural South. Tent Meeting, by Rebecca Alworth, Larry Larson and Levi Lee, is a wildly irreverent romp through Southern revivalism, mysticism and stubborn determination. And the three playwrights know whereof they speak: they are cofounders of the Southern Theatre Conspiracy.

Frank Manley’s The Two Masters is an “evening of Southern hospitality and Good Works” in two scenes: the first is a chilling vision of a rural couple who entertain a murderer, and the second involves the awkward but well-intentioned attempts of two women to comfort a bed-ridden friend. A comedy by James McLure, The Very Last Lover of the River Cane, takes us down to Texas, where a raucous showdown for the affections of “River Cane” is in progress between her persistent suitor of 15 years and a brash young challenger.

Of course not all of the plays are set below the Mason-Dixon line: Heather McDonald’s Available Light takes place in a French village during the 1800s, while Ellen McLaughlin’s Days and Nights Within transports us to an East Berlin prison in 1950.

The four one-act plays included in this year’s Humana Festival are reruns of sorts—each one appeared previously in ATL’s ’84 Shorts Festival last November. Divided into two evenings, the plays include The Root of Chaos by Douglas Soderberg, The American Century by Murphy Guyer, The Black Branch by Gary Leon Hill and Jo Hill, and Advice to the Players by Bruce Bonafede.

The Humana Festival runs through March 30.

Casualty Count

The American theatre sustained two casualties recently, as both the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. and New York’s First All Children’s Theatre announced that they would cease production—First ACT immediately, and the Folger after this season.

The Folger was founded in 1970, as a division of the internationally distinguished Folger Shakespeare Library. Housed in a picturesque, scaled-down evocation of an Elizabethan stage, the Folger developed an approach to Shakespeare that emphasized the text and rarely made radical transpositions of time, place or style. At the same time, new plays were almost always a part of the repertoire; among the works that premiered at the Folger over its 15 seasons are Brian Clark’s Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Tom Cole’s Medal of Honor Rag, David Freeman’s Creeps and Alonso Alegria’s Crossing Niagara.

For two seasons beginning in 1979, under the artistic direction of Louis Scheeder who guided the Folger for eight years in all, the company used the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center as its “second stage.” Since 1981, John Neville-Andrews has been its artistic director. According to Folger Library director Werner Gundersheimer, the reasons for closing the theatre are primarily financial. Gundersheimer estimates the theatre’s losses at an average of $200,000 per year, although Neville-Andrews disagrees, insisting that the figure has been reduced to around $40,000 in recent seasons.

“No one likes to see a theatre close,” adds Gundersheimer. “Everyone involved in the decision regrets it very much, but the losses cannot continue if the Folger is to remain a leading center of scholarship.”

The current Folger season will continue to its end as planned, with productions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. Plans for the future of the 235-seat space include a full schedule of the library’s other public programs: the Folger Consort, its resident medieval and Renaissance music ensemble; literary events; educational programs, lectures and symposia.

Personal reasons as well as financial ones were the motivating factors behind artistic director Meridee Stein’s decision to close the First All Children’s Theatre. In an announcement in mid-January, Stein noted, “With all that First ACT has accomplished, I find that it is time for me to pursue other creative opportunities. I had hoped that the organization could continue to grow and thrive, but under the present economic conditions, that doesn’t seem possible.”

Founded by Stein in 1969, the theatre has been a pioneer in the area of what she likes to term “child arts organizations.” Its repertory company of young people ages 8-22 performed four specially commissioned musicals each season, one of which was a world premiere developed over a period of several years. Throughout its existence, Stein continually succeeded in attracting some of this country’s foremost writers and composers, pressing them into the service of writing works geared for young people. Kenneth Cavander, Richard Peaslee, Charles Strouse, Stephen Schwartz and Elizabeth Swados all participated in recent seasons.

In addition, the company had become a national resource representing the U.S. at the launching of the United Nations International Year of the Child; performing at Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Institution; and taking part in the All China Youth Federation Exchange Program to the People’s Republic of China.

Among the company’s most significant accomplishments, Stein notes that it “helped set a new standard for what young people can do and see within the magical theatrical world.”

Ghosts in the Ruins

American Repertory Theatre’s season ran at full tilt through the winter months, as Milan Kundera’s Jacques and His Master joined Beckett’s Endgame and Gozzi’s King Stag in repertory. Noted critic Susan Sontag directed the Kundera work, adapted from a novel by Diderot, in her American directing debut. She comments, “My staging provides a further reworking, both of the Diderot original and of Kundera’s selection and transformation. I have set the action in a vast, empty, but theatrical space—a Roman ruin as reinvented by the dark brain of Piranesi…and presided over by a bust of Diderot…This is a ghostly space—the stage is both a stage and a theatre of ghosts. The personages in Kundera’s ghost-play about the ancien régime are phantoms, survivors. Both presences and absences. In a word, actors.” Robert Drivas, the “master” of the title, makes a pronouncement as Jacques (Thomas Derrah) and Chevalier de Saint-Ouen (Jeremy Geidt) look on. Douglas Stein designed the sets and Jane Greenwood the costumes.


The complacency and decadence of pre-Hitler Germany—and the brutality of the rising facist regime—are evoked in Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s dark comedy Nightpiece, a recent production of Germinal Stage Denver. Hildesheimer, one of Germany’s leading post-war playwrights translated his play into English, and Laura Cuetara directed. Here, Ed Baierlein (Germinal’s artistic director) as The Man Who Wants to Sleep gets the drop on Christopher Leo as The Burglar.


Gramma Rinn (Katherine Squire), the long-blind matriarch of an Oregon farm family, shares the Roaring ’20s fantasies of her imaginative 13-year-old granddaughter Jennie Mae (Dorrie Joiner) in Donald Driver’s A Walk Out of Water, which recently premiered at Pennsylvania Stage Company in Allentown under Gregory Hurst’s direction. The playwright says his affectionately drawn rural characters—including Gramma, a role he originally created for Eva Le Gallienne—embody “an indomitable spirit of individuality in all of us.” Arkin Pace designed the rundown country homestead that is the play’s setting.

Sanctuary for Writers 

New Dramatists, located in an old Lutheran church in an area of Manhattan that is politely known as Clinton—but more often referred to as “Hell’s Kitchen” is the oldest playwright’s service organization in America. Founded in 1949 by Michela O’Hara with the assistance of such theatrical luminaries as Moss Hart, Richard Rodgers and Howard Lindsay, the board of directors purchased the church in 1966, and renovation has been in progress ever since. Over the years, the first-floor Lindsay-Crouse Studio has been added for play readings, as well as a set of rooms on the third floor known as Seventh Heaven, for use as “writers’ garrets” and overnight lodgings.

The recent renovation of the second-floor mainstage (formerly the church sanctuary) is considered the culmination of improvement efforts. New seating, courtesy of the Shubert Organization, has been added along with a new lighting system provided by Vanco Stage Lighting. Four new writers’ studios have been built against the back wall of the space, which also serves to improve acoustics.

To celebrate the opening of the new mainstage, New Dramatists mounted two separate programs of short plays, known collectively as State of the Union. Tailored, perhaps, to the attention span of the “MTV generation,” no play lasted longer than four minutes—and the entire event was on view for one week only, in late January. Playwrights who participated in the programs included August Wilson, John Patrick Shanley, Dennis McIntyre, Jack Hefner, John Pielmeier, Amlin Gray, Wendy Kesselman and Romulus Linney—all enthusiastic members of New Dramatists.

Alaskan Landscapes

By the time it completes its six-week, three-city engagement, the Alaska Repertory Theatre’s production of Pantagleize will have been seen by 22,000 Alaskans, or around five percent of the state’s entire population. Flemish playwright Michel de Ghelderode may never have had it so good. (He once wrote, “I am a man who writes in a room—all alone—and who does not trouble about the fate of his works.”)

Alaska Rep artistic director Robert Farley staged the play, which he calls “a blend of whimsy, tragedy, humor and satire which traces the events of the title character’s 40th birthday.” Farley adds, “De Ghelderode used language in the way that Monet, Bosch, Breughel or Ensor used visual impressions—to create vast landscapes for the viewer to envelope, question and interpret.”

Since its beginnings nine years ago, the Alaska Rep has been committed to taking works beyond the confines of its home theatre in Anchorage, producing full seasons in Fairbanks as well as touring statewide to rural communities as well as city centers. Pantagleize completed its Anchorage run on Feb. 22, proceeding to Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula where it runs through March 2; then it is on to Fairbanks March 7-16. Student matinees will be included in each community.

Too Long at the Fair

The relationship between the mother and daughter of an immigrant Jewish family is the subject of Leah K. Friedman’s trio of one-acts, The Rachel Plays, running through March 24 at the American Jewish Theatre in New York. Set against the backdrop of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and told from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl, Friedman’s new work is the first play to emerge from AT’s Deborah Project for Jewish women writers. Featured are, from left, Richie Allan, Maia Danziger and Regina Baff, under Susan Einhorn’s direction. An unusual environmental set was created for the production by designer-sculptor Audrey Hemenway.

On the Waterfront

Since 1980, a major state-funded theatre complex has been on the drawing board for Sydney, Australia, but economic turmoil continually foiled plans, until recently. The December unveiling of a new theatre complex, to be the headquarters for the Sydney Theatre Company, was applauded by Australian artists as a major government contribution to the performing arts. The complex is located on a long-dormant wharf in Sydney Harbor and includes a 300-seat thrust theatre, a studio, two large rehearsal rooms, scene shops, offices and—overlooking the water—a spacious foyer which will eventually contain a bar and restaurant. While the theatre company will use the new facility for alternative and experimental works, it will continue to perform at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre 40 weeks per year, during which time the new complex will be available to rent, for everything from gallery exhibitions to social functions.

The curtain went up on the first program at the new theatre on Jan. 17, a series of 10 one-act plays running in repertory—five world classics and five new Australian works.

*A later correction noted that The Devil’s Disciple at Milwaukee Rep was directed by Gregory Boyd, not John DIllon.

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