Editor’s Note: The Selective Echo presents a two-part wrap-up of the closing events of Plan-B Theatre’s 2011-2012 season. The first part presented here focuses on the season up to now and the return of ‘Hedwig and The Angry Inch.’ The second part tomorrow will preview Plan-B’s annual benefit and playwriting slam production which will be held May 12.
As the company prepares for its annual benefit, playwriting slam competition, and the updated reprisal of one of its most enthusiastically received productions in its history, Plan-B Theatre is poised to close its 21st season on the same note that it has for the previous five years.
Once again, every seat was sold for its three world-premiere productions. In fact, only three productions since 2006 have not sold out, according to Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s producing director. Performance reviews were consistently enthusiastic and praiseworthy. This also was the seventh year that the company has dedicated its productions to original works by Utah playwrights.
And, as it prepares for its 22nd season, in which the next round of world premiere productions will take the company in a much different direction – at least in the broad thematic focus that evolved and percolated in works of the most recent seasons – Plan-B is always attuned to continuously improving its capacity for theatrically storytelling that always seeks to craft a balanced counterpoint of profound human emotional impact and intellectual explorations that challenge conventional wisdoms and ideologies.
Despite the soothing affirmations one might expect to extract from such consistent success, Rapier and Cheryl Ann Cluff, managing director, never assume that a production will sell completely. ‘Many people assume it just happens,’ Rapier explains, adding that ‘a lot of work goes into selling out a small theater.’
Some Plan-B works are written, shelved, reopened and revised in cycles that can run as long as five, 10, or even 15 years – an intriguing revelation considering that Plan-B’s productions always manage to coincide rather neatly with the most timely, relevant issues and controversies at the time they are premiered. And, given the intimate and often artistically minimalist characteristics of Plan-B’s productions, casting is akin to an advanced experiment in human chemistry, where Rapier and Cluff select actors who constitute the ideal ensemble that will give the most impact to the playwright’s language.
With three plays by Utah women who have had work previously premiered by Plan-B, this season effectively completed a broad thematic arc that evolved over the last few seasons. This year’s plays by Aden Ross, Debora Threedy, and Jenifer Nii resonated in how they compelled us to consider the implications and intentions of those who’ve anointed themselves as keepers of the venerable canon of humanities and the ways in which our national and community histories have been told. While the plays contained or suggested historical roots, the writers ventured successfully into a wilderness afar from the stubbornly situated yet comfortable historiography surrounding various subjects.
As The Selective Echo published at the time, ‘through 90 minutes of immensely entertaining sharp humor, ‘Lady Macbeth’ [by Aden Ross] gently invites audiences to reconnect with Shakespearean characters and to explore figuratively our minds as well for what we’re willing to tolerate and accept in this infamous era of political ineptitude.’ With an eight-member cast – the company’s largest in several years – the play rather surprisingly turned out to be, at least for some audience members who commented on it, the most polarizing production of the three.
But that’s precisely what Ross set out to do, especially in a brilliant weave of a play-within-a-play titled ‘Wicked Leaks.’ Again, as noted at the time: ‘The farce disrupts our predictable discourse – the lamentations and disappointments about political promises of knowing hope that end up unmet and ignored for convenient expediency. However, the farce also opens up our eyes and Ross demonstrates just why the Shakespearean genius remains as brilliant as ever.’ In fact, she convincingly demonstrated just why the polemics of our aggressively argumentative political discourse has gone beyond the absurd.
Meanwhile, only a few seemed to be unsettled by Debora Threedy’s ‘The Third Crossing,’ a play that at the surface explored the hugely incomplete history between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Some people seemed to be at least a bit oblivious to a much broader, complexly layered exploration of a national narrative that considers multiracial identities, interracial marriage, political correctness, and the emergence of eugenics, phrenology, and attempts to draw correlations between race and IQ.
Threedy rightfully pushed audiences to an uncomfortable place where the glib, smug confidence of rhetorical poses should be swept aside so we can confront our own ignorances and replace them with genuine values of egalitarianism that have no place for anti-racist beliefs and feelings. Yet, it remains quite telling that for a few, at least, the clamor to preserve the mythical integrity of the Jefferson legacy sadly is the most predictable reaction.
This spring’s production of Nii’s adaptation of ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ in particular, epitomized Plan-B’s exceptional artistry, proving that no one should underestimate the timeless power of Hawthorne’s genius nor believe that the novel’s language is too ornate or structured for a 21st century audience’s ear. The four-member cast breathed such emotionally gobsmacking life into the adaptation, which sold out very quickly. Nii’s superlative work pulled to the surface all of the most uncomfortable elements that bedevil our national consciousness when it comes to matters of hypocrisy, false reputations, and personal revenge, showing why precisely much has not really changed all that much since 1850. Audiences will see another work by Nii next season.
It cannot be emphasized enough, however, the importance of building longevity for these original works that have the capacity to see productions in and out of Utah. Earlier this year, Plan-B published its third edition of original plays – including the works produced this season – in ‘Even More Plays From Behind the Zion Curtain,’ an e-book anthology produced by Smashwords. Print editions of the earlier anthologies – in 2008 and 2010 – were produced by Juniper Press/Oxide Books. For more information about the books see here and here.
Likewise, the number of Plan-B plays produced in other venues will continue to grow. The list already includes Carol Lynn Pearson’s ‘Facing East,’ which transferred off-Broadway, toured in San Francisco, and is now being adapted for a film. Ross’ 2006 play ‘Amerika’ also was produced in Toronto’s Fringe Festival. Mary Dickson’s ‘Exposed’ toured Utah and Lesléa Newman’s ‘A Letter to Harvey Milk’ toured to Der Lesbisch-schwules Kulturhaus in Frankfurt, Germany.
Works by Matthew Ivan Bennett, Plan-B’s resident playwright, also have been gaining attention in other venues including Toronto and, next year, Omaha. Similarly, Eric Samuelsen, a prolific playwright who already has had three plays produced by Plan-B, has earned a national reputation both as an original writer and as a translator of Henrik Ibsen’s works. A new work by Bennett will be part of Plan-B’s 2012-2013 season along with plays by Nii and Matthew Greene. The company will devote its entire 2013-2014 season to works by Eric Samuelsen.
Two major events remain for the season. The ninth annual benefit featuring the original works of five Utah playwrights in a slam production will be held Saturday, May 12, at 8 p.m. in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City. (More tomorrow)
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
In June, Plan-B will present an updated production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s musical ‘Hedwig and The Angry Inch’ at The Egyptian Theatre in Park City. The show is among Plan-B’s most memorable productions, first offered in 2003 and again in 2005.
Earning The Salt Lake City Weekly’s award for best theater production in 2003, ‘Hedwig’ was the company’s biggest show, selling more than $40,000 in box office tickets.
The show will have eight performances during a run from June 8-17. For tickets and performance schedule, see here.
Of course, Aaron Swenson, a local actor who was just 24 when the production opened in 2003, will reprise the leading role as East German rocker Hedwig Schmidt, who is living a Kansa trailer park and trying to reboot her career after a botched sex-change operation by touring nationally with a band known as The Angry Inch. Plan-B’s production was staged just five years after the show premiered off-Broadway and a little more than one year after the film version (which is quite different from the stage show) was released. The film incidentally won best director and audience awards at Sundance.
In this production, Swenson now is right at Hedwig’s age but even in his initial performances, the actor was so believable in his portrayal that a bona fide fan club popped up, sporting T-shirts and clamoring for his autograph after performances. Swenson, who also is wardrobe supervisor at the Pioneer Theatre Company, is handling costume design for the show.
Joining the newest production will be Latoya Rhodes as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s cranky partner who is a born-again drag queen. The show’s musical demands are formidable enough that audience members do believe they are at an actual rock show. The four-member Angry Inch band includes two musicians from the previous productions: Dave Evanoff, musical director and on keyboards and guitars, and Van Christensen on drums. Van Christensen also is a member of six bands including The Suicycles, which also has member Camden Chamberlain on guitars for the new ‘Hedwig’ production. Rounding out the band is Adam Overacker on bass who has become a regular in many local bands and pit orchestras.
Directed by Rapier, the production also has Cooper Howell, assistant director; Jennifer Freed, stage manager; Randy Rasmussen, set design; Jesse Portillo, lighting design; Greg Ragland, projections design; Eric Robinette, sound engineer; R. Victor Saldivar, wig master, and Arika Schockmel, makeup design.
TOMORROW: A preview of the May 12 SLAM.
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