The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Longtime Lexington actor Kevin Hardesty will return to local stages in the title role of Balagula Theatre‘s production Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt’s Don Juan on Trial.
Hardesty has played many theater icons in Lexington, including the title role in two productions of Hamlet for the Lexington Shakespeare Festival in 1991 and 1999. Hardesty left the Lexington Theatre scene after he resigned from his post as artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington in 2003 for personal reasons. He returned a few times, most notably in SummerFest’s 2007 production of The Crucible, as John Proctor.
After five years away, he quietly returned early this fall for a reading of a new screenplay by Lexington filmmaker Jeremy Horton of 100 Proof fame at the Centeral Library’s Farish Theater.
In Don Juan, he will lead a cast of Lexington stage notables including Ryan Case as Chevalier De Chiffreville and Rachel Lee Rogers, who made her own return this fall in Balagula’s Bug, as Angelique. The show runs Dec. 9 to 19 at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar.
Sep9Filed under: Actors Guild of Lexington, Arts administration, Balagula Theatre, Central Kentucky Arts News, Classical Music, Downtown Arts Center, LexArts, Lexington Singers, Music, Musicals, Opera, Studio Players, SummerFest, The Rep, Theater, Visual arts, Woodford County Theatre; Tagged as: Ann Tower, Everett McCorvey, Jefferson Johnson, Larry Snipes, Robert Morgan, Robert Parks Johnson
In my column in the 2012-13 Arts Preview section of the Sept. 9 Lexington Herald-Leader, a handful of Lexington arts leaders who have been serving 15 years or more offered their opinions on how the arts have changed in the area over the last decade and a half and the current state of the arts. Of course, the print edition offered limited space for responses, but as we have said before, the web is a different story. So here are the unedited replies.
I am going to start with University of Kentucky voice professor and director of the UK Opera Theatre Everett McCorvey, because he answered in the body of the questions I posed, so it will let you know what everyone was responding to.
Q: This year, I was interested in hearing from folks who have been active here for a long time to get your impressions of how the arts in Central Kentucky have changed and stayed the same.
A: I love Kentucky and the appreciation for the arts. There are so many talented artists in our midst and it’s great to be in a city that supports artists and their work.
Q: What sorts of things have happened you never thought you’d see, or maybe you wish you’d never seen?
A: For me the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games were amazing. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to serve as the Executive Producer of a world event. I was very honored to have been asked. I was equally as proud of the local artists, technicians, businesses and volunteers who we were able to engage to perform and participate in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Everyone stepped up to the plate in an amazing way. It was a memorable event.
Q: What has been most surprising, affirming or disturbing?
A: When I arrived in Lexington, I was told by someone … “Everett this town will never support opera! Go somewhere while you are still young that will support opera.” I’m happy to say that this person was wrong! Lexington truly is an opera town. UK Opera Theatre was recently recognized by the Richard Tucker Foundation of New York as one of the top twenty opera training programs in the country for young singers. Pretty amazing!
Q: What is the state of the arts in the Lexington area, from your perspective?
A: We must guard very carefully our love and participation for the arts and not let the economy, video games and decreased legislative funding dim the importance of the arts in a community. Lexington is the community that it is because of the arts. The arts bring a vibrancy, an excitement, a sense of life and happiness to a community. The arts bring people together and they help us grow as human beings. I have long thought of doing research on towns that have high crime rates to try to discover how much hands-on art that particular city might have. I’ll bet the lower the participation in the arts, the higher the crime rate. The higher the participation in the arts, the lower the crime rate. When you take arts out of the schools, you take the reason that some students get out of bed in the morning to get to school. I was in the band when I was in elementary school. It was the excitement about being in the band that got me up every day and got me to school. It was music that carried me through my classes and helped me to appreciate the importance of discipline and responsibility so that I could practice my art. It is proven that children in the arts do better academically and are more successful in their chosen field, even if they choose to pursue other careers. The quality of life is improved by a community actively engaged in the arts. An active arts community draws more creative, fun and intellectual people to the city. Great cities also have great art. I think that’s been proven over and over. Please Lexington, don’t change. Don’t lose your fantastic appreciation and support of the arts. The arts make Lexington special.
Jefferson Johnson, director of choirs at the University of Kentucky and music director of the Lexington Singers
From my perspective I am really proud of the “choral culture” that has developed in central KY. Since I came to Lexington in 1993 (this is my 20th year as Director of Choral Activities at UK) I have witnessed a proliferation of strong choirs at every level. The high school choirs in this region have gotten stronger–several of them are conducted by former students (I’m proud to say).
The community choruses are thriving as well: the Lexington Bach Choir is a fabulous new group, and the Lexington Chamber Choir is doing extremely well, as are community choruses in Georgetown, Winchester, and Richmond, to name a few. The Kentuckians barbershop chorus is thriving.
Of course I’m most proud to be only the third director in the 55-year history of the Lexington Singers. We have grown from 110 to 180 voices over the past 15 years and have performed at Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Cathedral of Notre Dame, and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City while taking concert tours to Europe, South America, and within the U.S. We started the Lexington Singers Children’s Choirs (under the Artistic Direction of Dr. Lori Hetzel) in 2004. That organization has grown to include four choruses, touring annually.
Our choral program at UK has grown from 2 choirs (65 voices total) to 7 choirs with over 200 students involved each year.
When we started the acoUstiKats in 1993 there were no other male a cappella groups in central Kentucky that I could find. Now they are a feature of many high school choral programs and nearly every area college. Our choral music education graduates, expertly shepherded by Lori Hetzel, are teaching throughout the state and running many of the best choral programs.
The level of music in area church choirs is also very high, and these church music programs frequently serve the area with gracious use of their facilities.
It would be interesting to see how many people in Lexington are singing in some kind of a choir. I would guess over 5,000 easily.
Outside of choral music, I have noticed a flourishing of musical theater groups. Paragon, the Rep, Grand Night, and other groups and events have put on high quality shows (including the Lexington Singers annual Pops concerts). SCAPA and other schools are doing amazing things with musicals.
The UK Orchestra, under John Nardolillo, has become a major player in the arts scene. John’s ability to attract internationally acclaimed artists to play with the UKSO has transformed the local arts culture. Chamber music is also making a statement in central Kentucky with two annual festivals.
In summary, I am very proud (and somewhat surprised) that a city with the population of Lexington has been able to foster and grow so many high quality arts groups–especially in light of the cuts in state and federal funding. Its a tribute to the hard working artists but also to the philanthropic individuals who have supported these artistic endeavors. The financial support of the arts by corporations and individuals has long been a hallmark of strong artistic societies. I think we have one here in Lexington.
Robert Parks Johnson, actor and contributing Herald-Leader arts writer
Since our arrival in Lexington in 1995, I don’t remember there being as many really fine companies doing consistently good work. Our community was once dominated by a handful of personality cults. You were loyal to this director or that one, this company or another. Actors are much more willing to go where the work is exciting, and right now, that’s just about everywhere.
Casting is still much too white. The theatre community has failed to encourage and develop African American and Latino artists. There is still a sense of novelty and tokenism when we see anything other than Caucasian faces in lead roles.
LexARTS has grown into an expensive organization whose contribution to the community seems disproportionately modest. I’m sure they do more than this, but their most visible activities seem to center around raising money and being landlords. Companies like Actors’ Guild and Balagula are proving that theatre can work in non-traditional spaces, but much of that effort is made necessary by the prohibitive costs and burdensome rules of producing at the Downtown Arts Center. I don’t know the numbers, but it seems to me that an awful lot of pennies go to overhead for each dollar that LexARTS raises.
I am delighted to have witnessed the resurrection and renaissance of the two companies that are dearest to my heart. A nearly terminal case of mission creep brought Actors’Guild to the brink, but thanks to the vision and seemingly inexhaustible energy of Eric Seale, the company is back at work making good theatre and developing a new generation of artists. The Lexington Shakespeare Festival’s demise was short lived, thanks to a group of veterans who stepped into the void when that fine company closed for the last time. SummerFest at the Arboretum is more successful than ever, and continues to be the most unique and festive theatre experience in the Bluegrass.
My greatest sadness about our theatre community is that we seem to have given up on Shakespeare. Actors and audiences who love the Bard have one chance a year to play together. There is no way to develop a corps of actors with the skills and experience to play the classics well when there are only a dozen opportunities to practice. The result is work that is frustrating for artists and audiences alike. I wish there were more chances for our artists to scale this pinnacle of our language’s contribution to the world theatre.
The best development in Lexington theatre has been the influx of new young talent. The “Old Guard” and the “Usual Suspects” are still around to share stories and what wisdom we may have collected over the years, but gifted, committed young artists are driving the bus now. That as much as anything makes me proud of my legacy and hopeful for the future of our art in this wonderful town.
Robert Morgan, artist and former gallery owner
I would like to celebrate all the little guys who take on the task of doing world class art and putting on truly creative projects in Lexington. We are the ones setting the bar for the community. We work without any money are support from arts organizations and produce far more excitement in the community. I am talking about the likes of Gallerie Soliel (Morgan’s former gallery) and Institute 193. We are and were working with a budget far less than most organizations postage budget for a yearly programming. When I meet young folks in the arts who seem blocked into a corner I tell them to just take control and make it happen without local resources. I tell them they are in many ways better off creating off the grid, there are no restrictions! One day I wish the local money bags would create a slush fund just to give to young and creative artists to do what they do best — light fires all over this town and shame us with what they can do with their spark and vision. Spark and vision are severely lacking in almost all of our art organizations and institutions.
Ann Tower, artist and owner of the Ann Tower Gallery
Over all, I think things have changed for the best in Lexington over the past 10 years. When I opened in April 2002, Main St was pretty bleak and empty. We had the new library and the new courthouses, but there was still a lot of construction obstructing sidewalks and roads, and there weren’t many restaurants, and it was difficult to get people to come downtown. Today, we have lots of restaurants, but I’d love to see more art galleries and more retail businesses in general on Main St.
21C opening here is the single most exciting thing that’s happened, or scheduled to happen, for the visual arts in Lexington. At last, an art hotel on Main St that celebrates the adventurous art collection built by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. It will be a magnet for art lovers, as well as the curious, and whether they like the art or not, there will be plenty to discuss and think about. I expect those same visitors will also venture out to see what else our city has to offer, and maybe, some will think about starting their own art collections, or at least a buying a painting or a photograph or something. Obviously, all the arts need patrons and benefactors to thrive, and I think having 21C here will set an example.
Larry Snipes, producing director of the Lexington Children’s Theatre
Since I arrived in Lexington about three years after the Opera House re-opened, much has changed some for the good, and some which causes me concern.
Obviously, I have to start with LCT, we have grown from a small community arts organization that produced only three shows and a few education programs to a professional theatre for youth that serves over hundreds of thousands of young people. Our budget was around $40,000 when I arrived as the only full time employee. Now our budget is over a million dollars and we employ 14 full time staff and 30 or 40 part-time artists and interns to produce over 300 performances of 11 shows each season.
As for impact on the community, I would have to say that a prime catalyst for the growth of LCT and many other organizations was the creation of the Fund for the Arts in the 1980s. The Fund provided a stable base of support for many organizations and allowed us to concentrate on what we do best, creating the art. In addition to funding, the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council as, LexArts was called then, also supported community arts organization with professional development and assistance with best practices in arts management. I know I learned a great deal about the business side of the arts with each of those early trips before the allocations committee. They made us better at the business side of the arts, which in turn freed us to take risks and be creative with our artistic endeavors. It wasn’t perfect and still isn’t today, but it works.
As for the current state of the arts, I would have to say we have a boatload of dedicated artists and organizations that are working day and night to bring the best work to Central Kentucky audiences. I am thrilled with the variety of theatre, dance, music and visual art offerings in Lexington. Just look at this arts calendar, I dare you to find a weekend where there is nothing going on in the arts. In the theatre world in addition to our work at LCT, we have solid long standing groups like Studio Players and Actors’ Guild as well as newer groups like Project See, The Rep, KCT and the innovative work and concept that is Balagula.
As for my concerns, I worry that we may have seen the last of arts philanthropists like Lucille Little and W. T. Young. Those two alone have had a tremendous effect on the art we see in Lexington today. Where are their successors?
I really worry about the state of arts education in Kentucky. Over the years I have seen things improve a bit and then have the rug pulled out from under them. When I came to Lexington the Fayette County Public Schools had the Arts in Basic Education Program that had specialists in all disciplines who worked in elementary schools to help teachers integrate the arts into their classroom. Sadly that program was phased out. Arts have gone from being four questions on a yearly test to merely an assessment of schools arts activities to “insure schools provide a vigorous arts and humanities program” and improve on it every year. Actually improving on it every year sounds good, but the thing is, in practice, if you start at zero, improvement each year is pretty easy. After the change to assessment only, art teachers were cut across the commonwealth. Arts were no longer on the test. Not on the test equals not important. I wonder if our young people will be provided opportunities to participate in and see arts performances or will we continue to chip away at the creative fabric of our society?
Rich’s P.S. Thanks to all the folks who repsonded to this request and those who chose to reply. If you would like to add to the conversation, please comment on this post.
Aug12Filed under: Balagula Theatre, Central Kentucky Arts News, Classical Music, dance, Downtown Arts Center, fundraising, Kentucky Theatre, LexArts, Lexington Art League, Lexington Children's Theatre, Lexington Philharmonic, Lexington Singers, Music, Theater, UBS Chamber Music Festival of Lexington; Tagged as: 2012 Campaign for the Arts, Community Arts Grants, General Operating Funds, LexArts
LexArts set a new record in its 2012 Campaign for the Arts, raising $1.05 million to be distributed among area cultural groups for general operating support and Community Arts Grants. But LexArts President and CEO Jim Clark said he plans to nearly double that take within the next five years.
Clark said a significantly larger haul of $2 million will be necessary to support the work of a number of groups that are pursuing ambitious goals such as the Living Arts and Science Center, which is undergoing a renovation that will double its space. Clark said campaign goals will likely increase incrementally over the next few years as LexArts works to bolster the donor base with organizations both in and out of Lexington.
“We’re doing national-level work and it deserves national funding,” Clark said.
He said the quality of work by local arts groups has been a big reason why the campaign raised more than $1 million for the seventh consecutive year, despite the recession.
“The product is strong, and it’s attracted strong supporters,” Clark said.
Along with the campaign haul, LexArts announced recipients of general operating support and community arts grants.
General operating support went to:
- Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, $22,500
- Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, $165,000
- Lexington Children’s Theatre, $120,000
- Lexington Art League, $60,000
- Lexington Singers, $9,000
- Living Arts & Science Center, $102,000
Recipients of Community Arts Grants, given for specific projects, were:
- Balagula Theatre Company, $9,000 to support its upcoming season of five full length plays, including a world premier
- Kentucky Ballet Theatre, $9,000 to support its 2012-2013 Season
- Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, $8,000 to support its Kentucky Great Writers Series
- Chamber Music Festival Festival of Lexington, $8,000 to support its weekend festival and the “July Series,” informal pop-up concerts around town performed by young artists
- KY Women Writers Conference, Inc., $8,000 to support the annual conference
- Central Music Academy, $5,000 to support free music lessons for financially disadvantaged youth ages 8 to 18 years old
- LexingtonChamber Chorale, $5,000 to support its 2012-2013 Season
- Headley-WhitneyMuseum, $5,000 to support its Improbable Baubles art program for middle school students
- Common Good, $2,500 to support a youth arts initiative blending traditional storytelling with digital multimedia design
- KentuckyMighty Wurlitzer Project, $2,500 to support the 90th Anniversary Celebration at the Kentucky Theatre
- Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova, $2,000 to support the creation of abbreviated love letters to the city of Lexington, installed as temporary works of street art along Limestone.
Balagula Theatre at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar has announced its 2012-13 season. It opens with a play that has some intriguing local connections.
The Kentucky premiere of Tracy Letts’ Bug plays Sept 9 to 12 and 16 to 19. The original productions of the play in London, Chicago and Off-Broadway in New York featured one-time Lexington resident Michael Shannon as Peter Evans, a Gulf War veteran who draws a lonely cocktail waitress into his deepening and destructive paranoia. The 2006 film version paired Shannon with fellow Kentuckian Ashley Judd as Agnes, the waitress. The film was a commercial failure, many believe because it was marketed as a horror film that ultimately didn’t offer much traditional horror. Letts went on to write the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August, Osage County, which has been presented twice in Lexington in the past year.
The rest of the season is …
Mrs. Klein by Nicholas Wright, Oct. 21 to 26, 29 and 30. Another Kentucky premiere, this 1995 play portrays child psychologist Melanie Klein whose devotion to her work threatens those closest to her. Directed by Ryan Case.
Don Juan on Trial by Eric Emmanuel Schmitt, Dec 9 to 12 and 16 to 19. This play, the third Kentucky premiere of the season, looks at the legendary lover and issues of gender and tolerance. It marked the star of Schmitt’s celebrated career. Directed by Natasha Williams.
The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee, Feb. 10 to 13 and 17 to 20. A middle-aged architect falls in love with a goat in Albee’s play that explores the limits of liberal mores and tolerance. Directed by Bo List.
The Trial of God (as it was held on Feb. 25, 1649, in Shamgorod) by Elie Wiesel, April 14 to 17 and 21 to 24. A dramatization, in a distinctly Yiddish style, of the actual trial that was held in the German concentration camp of Auschwitz during World War II. Directed by Natasha Williams.
A limited number of season tickets are on sale for $75 each. Call (859) 621-8694 if you prefer to purchase by phone.
Prospect native Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare will make its debut at the Comédie-Française, the national theater of France, April 28 to June 12.
In 2009, the play was accepted into the repertoire of the the 332-year-old theater, making Wallace and Tennessee Williams the only American playwrights with works in the theater, the oldest national theater in the western world.
Lexington audiences got a chance to see Wallace’s classic in a production by Balagula Theatre last fall that was in conjunction with the Kentucky Women Writers Conference’s new playwrighting competition, which Wallace judged. The winning play, Keliher Walsh’s Year of the Rabbit, concludes its run tonight at Balagula.
Wallace, who divides her time between Kentucky and England, attended the final performance of One Flea at Balagula in September. The play centers on class struggles that emerge in 1665 England during the plague. The play made its debut in 1995 at London’s Bush Theatre and had its United States premiere at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1996. The 1997 production at New York’s Public Theatre received the Obie Award for best play.
Dec24Filed under: Actors Guild of Lexington, Agape Theatre Troupe, Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Balagula Theatre, Central Kentucky Arts News, Classical Music, Eastern Kentucky University, Lexington Children's Theatre, Lexington Opera House, Lexington Philharmonic, Music, Musicals, Rupp Arena, Singletary Center for the Arts, Studio Players, SummerFest, Theater, Transylvania University, UBS Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, UK;
We did not have a major international event in Lexington this year like 2010’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, but it felt like a big year in the arts.
WEG was a catalyst for a lot of big names and big plans for Lexington arts organizations and presenters, but the major events of 2011 came a bit more naturally. It was an important year for the arts in Central Kentucky as the organizational and physical landscapes shifted.
How many college orchestras could claim a year in which they played with superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman and orchestral superstars the Boston Pops, complete with Keith Lockhart on the podium? The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra could, and it played a world premiere by Thomas Pasatieri. Major accomplishments are becoming routine under John Nardolillo’s direction.
Also coming from the UK School of Music was the Opera Theatre’s innovative production of Porgy and Bess, which recorded multiple sellouts at the 1,500-seat Singletary Center and employed a new video projection system created by UK’s Viz Center for the sets.
The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 50th anniversary season with another violin superstar, Midori, and continued some changes that it experimented with last year, including having Picnic With the Pops at Keeneland and taking its annual Messiah performances to area churches.
As is becoming more the case, numerous new works were premiered in Central Kentucky this year, including the orchestral version of Daniel Thomas Davis’ Book of Songs and Visions, which he originally composed for the chamber ensemble at the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. This year’s festival world premiere was Daniel Kellogg’s Look Up at the Sky.
ActOut Theatre brought Stephen Currens’ The Happy Hour to the stage, and Christmastime brought two world premieres: Margaret Price’s musical Looking for Mrs. Santa Claus at Studio Players, and Robyn Peterman-Zahn’s Smackdown for the Christmas Crown at The Rep, a new company making its debut.
An arts district?
The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force has primarily been a sports story, to this point, focused on what kind of home court the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team will have. But the whole project has major implications for arts and entertainment in Central Kentucky beyond what effect renovations in Rupp will have on arena acts that play Lexington. Included in the discussion have been possibilities for new venues, including an amphitheater near the arena, a possible new home for area orchestral groups, and a downtown campus for the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. The effort to reimagine the arena area also has revived a decades-old debate about whether Lexington needs a 2,000- to 2,500-seat performing-arts theater, which does not appear to be in the cards with recently approved plans.
This story will evolve over the years because the project reportedly will take more than a decade to complete. But 2011 is the year things seriously started to happen, and the arts have had a seat at the planning table.
Speaking of major performing-arts theaters, a new one opened this fall: the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond. It is the first new major arts venue of more than 1,000 seats to open in Central Kentucky in several decades, although Lexington’s Singletary Center for the Arts and Opera House, and Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts have undergone major renovations in recent years.
EKU made a provocative move in hiring former Norton Center assistant director Debra Hoskins as its director, and she brought the Norton Center playbook, booking big names including B.B. King, Peter Frampton and Wynonna Judd for the opening season of the new theater.
In possibly a hint of how arts programming at Central Kentucky theaters might be realigning, new Norton Center director Steven A. Hoffman programmed more of a connoisseur/adventurer season at his venue, with shows like the Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata performing a reimagined Sound of Music and avant-garde violinist Hahn-Bin this fall.
A realigned theater scene
No genre realigned in Central Kentucky this year as much as theater in Lexington. Actors Guild of Lexington staged what has been a successful comeback, with a dizzying number of shows for one calendar year, mostly at its new venue off Harrodsburg Road, near the Fayette County-Jessamine County line. Meanwhile, several new theaters emerged, including ProjectSEE Theatre, which has programmed a season at the Downtown Arts Center and Transylvania University; SummerFest, which staged its first fall and indoor show with August: Osage County and has plans for a spring production; and The Rep, which grabbed the musical theater baton from Paragon Music Theatre, which went on possible permanent hiatus with the departure of founding director Ryan Shirar.
Other players moving around and positioning themselves in 2011 included On the Verge, which had a successful site-specific performance at a funeral home with Three Viewings and then presented its first theater production with God of Carnage at the Downtown Arts Center. And Balagula Theatre continued growing its own niche, performing Naomi Wallace’s contemporary classic One Flea Spare for the playwright and participating in a competition with the Kentucky Women Writers Conference that will result in a world premiere production early in 2012. Agape Theatre also has continued to innovate, with new productions illustrating the black experience in Kentucky and beyond, including a collaboration early in the year with eventual National Book Award winner Nikky Finney.
With all the shifting, the Lexington theater scene has become a true ensemble cast, with no leading theater — although Lexington Children’s Theatre is the leading professional house — but with lots of interesting character actors.
Somebody has to find the body.
Whether it’s a murder, a suicide or an unfortunate solitary passing, someone has to discover the corpse and then live with that unfortunate moment – or not.
The lives of those innocent bystanders and the eerily close relationship with death they create are explored in Actors Guild of Lexington’s season-opening production of Laura Wade’s Breathing Corpses. It’s a show that unfortunately has trouble coming to life.
The trouble starts in the first act with Bethany Finley as a motel maid who finds a suicide victim when she goes into his room to clean it. This scene is a tall order for Finley, who has already filled one tall order this fall as the waif in Balagula Theatre’s production of One Flea Spare. Here, she seems to lack direction in navigating this dialogue with another character who cannot respond.
The question that hangs over this scene is why this woman is staying in a room with a dead body instead of going to report it. Her lines tell us this has happened to her before, finding a body in a room, and she is afraid of being fired because she fumbled handling the previous incident. But she seems to be messing this incident up too, and her portrayal of the scene’s awkwardness is too awkward, featuring several pregnant pauses that elicit more frustration than tension.
Finley, and the play in general, fare better when they have other actors to play off of.
The show portrays three situations in which people find bodies and deal with the consequences, with set changes coming through scenic designer Tommy Gatton and director Eric Seale’s use of a circular stage that shows the audience a third of the pie for each scene.
The best and most unsettling of the trio are Kate (Sarah Tackett) and Ben (Zack Hightower). Kate found a murder victim while walking Ben’s dog and exhibits scant sympathy for the murder victim or the dog, but voluminous rage at how the discovery and subsequent police questioning and other details loused up her busy day.
There is a ripped-from-the-headlines quality about Keith Huff’s play A Steady Rain, which opened Sunday night at the Balagula Theatre for a two-week run.
But what makes it a thoroughly engrossing evening of theater is the way it burrows way below the headlines and the buddy-cop, procedural-drama framework. The story is really set in the American home and workplace and raises vexing questions about the loyalties and obligations of friendship, love, fraternity and justice.
Denny and Joey are Chicago cops who have been friends since kindergarten, a relationship that is set up with a lot of towel-snapping humor at the beginning.
We quickly learn, however, that during his years as a Chicago police officer, Denny has constructed his own moral universe justifying bribes, violence and other not-by-the-book behavior to protect the city and right some of the injustices that he feels have been dealt him. At home, Denny is The Man, the provider to and protector of his family. All challengers will be dealt with swiftly and violently — even his wife.
Lest we let Joey off too easy, we are reminded that the bachelor has his own demons: alcoholism and being in love with Denny’s wife, Connie.
But Joey’s role here is to grapple with watching his friend’s tragic freefall as the events of a few rainy summer days and nights spiral out of control. He finds it increasingly impossible to cover up and make excuses for Denny.
Louisville actors Clint Gill as Denny and Andy Pyle as Joey inhabit their characters so thoroughly they and director Kathi E.B. Ellis make Huff’s script more compelling than it is on paper.
As Denny, Gill shows us this is not necessarily a bad guy. His intentions are basically good. But somewhere pursuing those good intentions, his moral compass was thrown way off.
Joey’s attempts to reign Denny in are rebuffed as unmanliness at best, disloyalty at worst. It doesn’t help that Joey is predisposed to self-loathing, blaming himself for Denny’s self-made mess at its zenith.
An allusion to the case of cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is dropped in about half-way through the story. Denny has become embroiled in conflict with a pimp after he got involved with one of his prostitutes, leading to a tragic attack on Denny’s home.
In the midst of dealing with that aftermath, Denny and Joey are called to investigate the case of a frightened, naked and drugged Vietnamese boy found in the streets. It mirrors the case of a boy who had escaped from Dahmer but was returned to him by officers investigating the case when Dahmer appeared and said the boy was a friend. That boy was murdered by Dahmer shortly after that incident, less than two months before Dahmer was discovered and arrested.
In the case of Joey and Denny, the incident itself is minor, at its time. Denny is quickly distracted when he sees someone he suspects was involved in shooting up his house, and he and Joey give the boy back to the Dahmer-esque character so Denny can pursue the man.
When the killer’s capture hits the papers a few weeks later, Denny and Joey are implicated as the cops that gave the kid back to the murderer. The shattering of their lives becomes public.
A Steady Rain is a play that feels longer than its run time of two hours, 20 minutes, including intermission, in an oddly good way. It is that lengthening of time you experience in stressful situations where time seems to slow and you just want it to end because you have so thoroughly been drawn into this tragic story.
Stage manager Natalie Nicole had the bad news.
For weeks, the cast of Balagula Theatre‘s production of Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare had been hopeful the playwright, a Prospect native who spends her summers in Kentucky, might visit a performance. But before the final performance, the cast was told, she wasn’t coming.
“I didn’t believe it for a second,” said actor Pete Sears, who played Kabe, the heart of the dark comedy.
And as it turned out, his mistrust was well placed, for indeed, sitting in the front row for Wednesday night’s performance was Wallace, who is in Lexington for the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.
The theater was trying not to tell the cast so the players would not be nervous, though her appearance was a fairly poorly kept secret as Wednesday’s audience was loaded with Lexington cultural notables, including leaders from LexArts.
For Balagula Theatre, based at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar, it was the first time a playwright had ever visited a production of one its plays.
“It’s really wonderful to see that really good theater is being done in Kentucky outside of Louisville,” said Wallace, whose normal Kentucky venue is Actors Theatre of Louisville, where several of her works have had their world or North American premieres at the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Flea, which looks at class struggles in the context of the plague in 17th Century England, went on to great success after its 1996 Humana debut, winning the 1997 Obie Award for best play and being selected in 2009 for the permanent repertory of Comedie-Francaise, the French national theater.
Wallace said she has seen numerous productions of the play, though hardly all of them.
Los Angeles-based playwright Keliher Walsh’s Year of the Rabbit has won first prize in the Kentucky Women Writers Conference‘s competition for full-length plays. The play, which ties the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars together, will receive a full production by Balagula Theatre in March.
The competition was judged by award-winning playwright Naomi Wallace, a native of Prospect, Ky., who selected Walsh’s script from three finalists, which also included One Night in a Dance Hall by Ludmilla Bollow of Milwaukee, Wis., and Burying Mother by Donna Spector of Warwick, N.Y.
“Year of the Rabbit makes evident, with a fresh theatricality and original imagination, the historical and emotional connectedness we often wish to deny between what one might call Big History and the most intimate experiences of our lives,” Wallace said in a news release from the Women Writers Conference. “The play brings together the disparate worlds of love and war, and the collision is both disturbing and at times, deeply moving.”
In addition to the world premiere production, Walsh will receive $500 cash.
The playwrighting competition was suggested to the conference by Herald-Leader theater critic Candace Chaney. The initial round of 168 entries was judged by a panel including Chaney, Balagula Theatre co-artistic directors Natasha Williams and Ryan Case, Peabody Award-winning playwright and University of Kentucky assistant professor of playwrighting Herman Daniel Farrell III and Women Writers Conference director Julie Kuzneski Wrinn.
Balagula is currently producing Wallace’s Obie Award-winning play One Flea Spare, which had its world premier at the 1996 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The Balagula Production will run Sept. 1-4 and 11-14. The Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference is Sept. 15-18 at the University of Kentucky.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich