OUR TOWN at Ford’s Theatre Offers Sneak Peek For New Offering at Theater J

A bold new production of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN has opened at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Stephen Rayne who did such a magnificent job last season directing the Theater J/Ford’s Theatre co-production of PARADE. The new staging brings back some of the cast members of PARADE and reunites Rayne with scene designer Tony Cisek, who does so many brilliant sets for so many companies around town, including us. Now you wouldn’t think there’s much design at play in this production of OUR TOWN. What there is, for a good long while, is very little set.

07h_OurTown

Oh, there’s the cantilevered, radically-raked stage, swooping down from back-to-front at most-likely the maximum allowable gradation. And there are the 40+ identical white chairs. Now these are chairs one mostly expects to find in Act III of the play, in the simple (though devastating) cemetery scene, and here they are in this production, more chairs than needed laid out in rows for Act I. Clearly, this production team has a surprise up its sleeves for Act III. And, boy, do it ever! I’ll let the students explain. Suffice to say that between Acts I and II I didn’t see a curtain descend to mask any scene changes. Between Acts II and III while I was out getting a drink of water, a black screen was quietly dropped. And when it was lifted to start Act III, a totally startling, brilliant pay-off was in place. That, my friends, is the definition of a “coup de théâtre” (or a “sensational bit of stagecraft!) and a brilliant realization of the truly magical, stark, haunting specter that is the cemetery scene in Act III.

I look forward to reading what others had to say about OUR TOWN, whether it be their first time seeing it, or, like actress Kim Schraf (a frequent Theater J performer and cast member of OUR TOWN who so graciously spoke to our group on Thursday night, together with PARADE cast member Kevin McCallister) someone who’s seen (and been in) the play multiple times. Never have we seen a physicalization of this play in the way Rayne and Cisek allowed us to experience it.

But this Ford’s production is certainly not the first racially integrated version of the play. Our own Delia Taylor and her mother Deborah staged a similarly conceived, non-traditional version at The Theatre Lab. And then there’s this version of the play performed by young students in Compton, LA — do check out this incredibly video documentation; OT: Our Town is a documentary which looks at Dominguez High School’s brave experiment and the people who struggled to make it happen.

A radically new visioning of OUR TOWN is also on our minds as we introduce to you the first glimpse of what we’re looking to produce at Theater J next season: The world premiere staging of Darrah Cloud’s reimagining of Wilder’s classic, moved from Grover’s Corner, NH to Skokie, Illinois. The play is called OUR SUBURB. It’s an homage to OUR TOWN (there have been many over the years, but never has there been one to conjoin the Chicago suburbs, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Holocaust survivors, the Nazis threatened march through Skokie in 1977, amid all the hijinks and angst of senior year at Niles East — or is it New Trier West? — I’m forgetting). Anyway, with the playwright’s permission, I’ve given our Theater J student subscribers an insider peek at Darrah Could’s play, and we’ll be getting some feedback on the adaptation in comments here as well. It’s interesting to go from Ibsen’s AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE and examining the adapters’ strategies in the two different versions we’ve now read and experienced in BOGED (TRAITOR) and Arthur Miller’s version, and to now see how Darrah Cloud pays homage and also departs from the Wilder. Will be interesting to continue contemplating the value of such updating of timeless classics — choosing, as many a playwright has done before, to rewrite a masterpiece to make it speak in new ways to a new situation. Why, if a masterpiece is indeed “timeless,” does it make any sense to transplant and transpose and give new language and new character names and actions to already-durable prototypes? What’s the case to be made for a radical update like BOGED or SUBURB? And are the updates “radical” enough? What if a transposition is more subtle and gentle? I’ve had experience with that — see THE SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET! and click through a bunch of different links to see differing reactions to an adaptation that may not have gone far enough… or did it go too far?

Veronica Del Cerro and Alexander Strain as Nina and Treplev (photo by Stan Barouh)

Veronica Del Cerro and Alexander Strain as Nina and Treplev (photo by Stan Barouh)

Anyway, a salute to all the great artists at Ford’s who brought Wilder’s enduring masterpiece to life!

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Relevant Reading

It’s Shirley.

A few things that are related to the 09/10 season and Theater J in general that I’ve been reading about today…

This didn’t exactly come from the internets, rather from the Dramaturgs and Literary Managers Listserve, for which I receive daily updates in my inbox. It’s managed by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas and it’s a fantastic resource for theater-makers everywhere. Imagine you have several hundred of your smartest, best-read, most research-savvy friends ready to help out withthe click of a “send button” and that’s the listserve.

A week ago a reader from NY posted this:
I’m prepping for an upcoming discussion of THE SEAGULL. And my mind started wandering as I thought about crazy production concepts for this beautiful play. I’m curious: what are some of the strangest ideas the rest of you have come across when working on the play or talking about it?

I thought about sending along the list of adaptations we’d generated for the program during SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET. But I wondered if they truly qualified as “strange” since most were pretty well known productions. Then a few days ago I was pleased to see that Theater J had indeed added something to the dialogue, courtesy of an audience member (perhaps a Theater J friend? Not a name that I know) who wrote:

This summer Theater J in D.C. performed an adaptation of “The Seagull” entitled “The Seagull on 16th Street,” modeled structurally along the lines of Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Theater J is in residence at the D.C. Jewish Community Center on 16th and Q, hence the title. The adaptation by A.D. Ari Roth is of relevance to this thread because it takes a substantial departure from the text in recasting Arkadina’s family, including the extended family of Polina, Masha, etc. as assimilated Jews. Konstantin, rejecting his mother’s distance from her roots, as well as the theater into which she has assimilated, is seeking a resurrection of his traditions and faith. His play in Act I is inspired by the traditional Friday night service of welcoming the Sabbath bride (Nina’s role), and the opening curtain is preceded by rituals such as lighting a Sabbath candle and the blowing of the shofar(normally associated withthe High Holidays rather than the Sabbath). Roth adds to Chekhov’s tensions between Konstantine andhis mother the issue of faith found and faith lost.

I found that Roth’s theme was most successful and resonant in the fourth act, specifically in Konstantin’s despair after seeing that Nina had found faith but that he had failed to do so. Just before he tears his manuscropts, Konstantin slowly and methodically takes from a shelf the symbols of his faith, the candlestick, the shofar, etc. and quietly places them in a box to be stored away and forgotten. In that gesture I felt a striking resonance between Chekhov’s text and Roth’s adaptation. It certainly was an unusual approach to the play, so I thought it worth mentioning in light of the current discussion.

Of course, we always love to be talked about (especially when it’s positive) and it’s nice to see we are making people think about theater and faith and other big ideas.

And a final SEAGULL tidbit–this note was also posted as a response by the wise and wonderful director/dramaturg/educator Rick Davis from George Mason University:

Guthrie production, late 80s early 90s? Lucian Pintilie directed. Last scene first.

Next, to continue my thought yesterday about the connections between RUINED and IN DARFUR, The Washington Post has a feature today about the Rape epidemic still raging in the Congo. We read a fair amount about systematic rape while researching the Bosnian War, as it was that conflict that brought the issue to international attention. While the motives seem somewhat less pointed in Africa than in the Balkans (where rape was a decidedly effective tool for ethnic cleansing) the results are no less devastating.

And finally, on a lighter note, check out this fantastic and illuminating interview with Itamar Moseswhose play THE FOUR OF US we’ll be producing next January (scroll down to August 6). The post is from the blog of another fantastic playwright, Adam Szymkowicz, who has dedicated the last several months of his blog to writing about up-and-coming playwrights. The posted chats are all really engaging–if you are at all interested in tracking the next generation of superstar theater writers, chances are you’ll find them on his blog. We’ve not had much contact with Itamar here in the office yet (except for Ari, who is addicted to the buzz of the facebook chat) but I will admit, I kind of love what he writes as advice to emerging playwrights, “Begin to treat rejection as totally neutral and anything shy of rejection as enormous encouragement”. I think it’s sound advice for anyone pursuing a career in the arts–be they writing, acting, directing or producing.

Dame Naomi “Redgrave” Jacobson Returns for Final SEAGULL Performances Today at 3 & 7:30!

Oh, what a splendid reunion it will be (gone 6 days & 3 shows, but how we missed her so?) and oh what a poignant farewell! We’ll get to feel it all today — Come early, stay late — It’s all Pay What You Wish — with a broad discussion on Treplev’s Mission, and Ours at 5:35 following the matinee performance. Today ends part one of our summer and brings to an official close the 2008-09 season. Let’s toast all we’ve wrought…