The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
We are in the midst of a little backstage drama at William Shakespeare’s new Globe Theatre in 1599.
The debut performance of Henry V has just concluded, and there are some congratulations, a lot of griping and colorfully spoken drama. Suddenly, a company member pops in, but he is far from himself. He’s lurching, his face is disfigured, and soon, he is chomping on someone’s arm.
Well, no one says “zombie,” because that word was not around in 1599. The Elizabethan characters, including Queen Elizabeth herself (Sharon Sikorski), conclude that this is a plague and lock themselves up in the Globe, much like Rick Grimes’ people take refuge in the prison on The Walking Dead.
And if you follow Lexington theater much, you know there is only one playhouse where you could see this: Eric Seale’s Actors Guild of Lexington.
To an extent, theaters become reflections of their artistic directors’ sensibilities, and Actors Guild has certainly reflected Seale’s interests theatrical (David Mamet’s November), cultural (The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs), and historical (The Love Song o f J. Robert Oppenheimer).
The good thing is Seale’s preoccupations are broad and interesting, so he is by no means wearing people out with his point of view. But knowing his love for Shakespeare and pop culture, Seale was the prime Lexington AD to program and direct William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead by John Heimbuch.
Horror and historical/literary mash-ups have become all the rage these days, with Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.
Heimbuch’s script is essentially a vehicle for the conceit. There aren’t really any great truths to be relayed or story to tell as much as Shakespearian dialogue and historical humor to string together the zombie attacks.
And, of course, the people who are well need to figure out how to fend off the zombies.
As the title character, Tim Hull has the most to work with. Through the ordeal, Shakespeare grows from being a sullen tool of the powerful in England to more genuine self-confidence. He finds that he can work with artists who initially threatened him, including tiring Falstaff actor William Kemp (Pete Sears), and stand up to bullies of the monarchy, such as Francis Bacon (Matt Seckman).
Seckman has the showiest role, save for bloody-faced zombies, trying to use Shakespeare’s work to advance his own concerns and burnish his position with the Queen. Quickly, the audience is rooting for him to be bitten.
The better you know your Shakespeare and Shakespearian history, the more you will be rewarded by the play, which constantly drops Shakespearian dialogue from all characters’ mouths.
Land of the Dead is a technically ambitious show from several standpoints. Costume designer Natalie Cummins has to outfit a much larger cast than usually traipses across Lexington stages, Jason Tate has numerous fight scenes to choreograph, and the makeup is elaborate and extensive.
The zombie action is a bit varied, from the docile Walking Dead types to some crazed, ravenous killers. Purists might demand more consistency.
But this really isn’t a show for purists of any stripe. It’s fun, and in his tenure as AGL’s artistic chief, we know that Seale likes to have fun.
Actors Guild of Lexington’s 2012-13 season features four shows that have not been produced in Lexington before and, for the third straight year, an open slot at the end of the season so artistic director Eric Seale can pick something timely and intriguing. It also includes a mix of directors from a visiting artist to two Kentucky directors building national reputations.
Nov. 1-11: November by David Mamet, directed by Bo List. Seale has strategically placed this play about a President in an uphill battle for re-election on the weekends before and after the 2012 election. List is a Lexington native who has been directing nationally and has several engagements in Central Kentucky this year.
Jan. 24-Feb. 3: Red by John Logan, directed by Jerome Davis. The 2010 Tony Award winner for best play looks at an artist’s journey creating a definitive work. Davis is the director of Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh, N.C., and was previously seen at Actors Guild last fall performing Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas.
Feb. 28-March 10: Seminar by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Chrisena Ricci. Tensions and romance between four writers and a professor play out over the course of 10-week seminar. Ricci studied theater at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and is currently assistant to the artistic director at Actors Guild.
May 9-19: William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead by John Heimbach, directed by Eric Seale. To quote the release: “A comedic homage to zombie films and a carefully researched drama about Shakespeare and his authorship.”
The final play in the lineup will be announced later in the season. This year, that strategy brought Mike Daisey’s controversial The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to the AGL stage.
Season subscriptions are $90 for adults, $67 senior adults and students. Call 1-866-811-4111 or visit actors-guild.org for tickets.
It occurred to me Tuesday watching the final dress rehearsal of SummerFest’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire that this is the first time in 14 years covering theater in Lexington I have seen the same show presented two times by the same director.
Joe Ferrell directed Actors Guild of Lexington’s production of Streetcar in 2003 at the Downtown Arts Center’s black box theater, and he is directing the production that is trying mightily to get going in the Arboretum – the first two attempts at an opening night, Wednesday and Thursday, have been scuttled due to rain and lightning.
Rehearsals are not performances and this is not a review, but looking at this production, it was striking how similar yet different this show was from 2003.
There certainly was that signature Joe Ferrell style — a reverence for the playwright’s words and eye on crisp storytelling. You always know with a Ferrell show that everyone onstage will know what they are saying and why, and interesting interpretations will come out of that.
Contrasting the productions speaks to the impact casting and venue have on a play.
Ferrell noted in an interview earlier this summer that as big a title as Streetcar is, it is something of a small, intimate show for the vast Arboretum stage. The essential drama plays out between four people — Blanche, Stella, Stanley and Mitch — and there are just a few other ancillary characters. The setting of a modest New Orleans apartment is also fairly low-key for SummerFest.
But Tuesday, lead actors Evan Bergman as Stanley and Bess Morgan as Blanche (photo, above) were crafting big performances that filled the space and maximized the drama. Nine years ago, Kevin Hardesty and Lisa Thomas were giving decidedly different interpretations of the same characters. Hardesty’s Stanley was more arrogant than primal, making Blanche’s characterizations of him seem to be part of her fantasy. Thomas’ portrayal was less demonstrative and she and Hardesty seemed to be engaged in more of a psychological struggle.
And that really worked for the black box, a a venue that seats a couple hundred at most and fewer, I believe, for the Streetcar production. That take may have been lost in the Arboretum, but that is where venue comes into play. And good actors know where they are playing and make adjustments accordingly — both Thomas and Hardesty have brilliantly led productions in the Arboretum, as have Bergman and Morgan in the Downtown Arts Center.
It really speaks to the elasticity of a script. It sets out the words and essentially the story and emotions, but it is when the director, actors and designers come together that the play really comes to life, and it is different every time, even when some of the same people are involved.
It seemed appropriate to end a week that started with two Kentuckians walking off with Tony Awards catching the work of another Kentucky theater artist who has gone off to create in a bigger playground.
This weekend Actors Guild of Lexington is hosting Danville native Rowen Haigh and her Baltimore-based White Flag Performance Group in a presentation of its original work, Really You Should Use Bullets. Yes, a graduate school-based theater collective on the stage of Actors Guild’s South Elkhorn Theatre is a long way from the lights of New York’s Beacon Theatre, where Ashland native Steve Kazee picked up a Tony for best actor in a musical for Once Sunday night and Elizabethtown’s Darron West was honored for best sound design of a play for Peter and the Starcatcher.
But it was abundantly clear that Haigh and her colleagues from Townson State University have an abundance of creativity that could someday blaze a path to much larger stages.
Bullets is a dark delight that starts with a sad clown committing suicide in a way that drew a combination of laughter and sniffs from the audience.
Immediately after arriving in the afterlife, Clown is stripped of her clown status because suicide in very unfunny and not worthy of a clown. Her nose and voice are amputated, and she is told by a terse, disembodied voice, “You are a mime.” That prompts actress Lesley Berkowitz to deliver a silent scream to rival Edvard Munch, starting her journey through heaven and hell, which we learn are both brought to us by Johnson & Johnson, Disney and the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Amy Kronzer complements Berkowitz’s engaging miming with a hilarious cast of characters from the sinister sweet concierge in heaven to a snarky cellphone friend in hell to, who else, Marcel Marceau.
It’s a quick redemption tale that addresses the human longing to belong and its sometimes less than desirable consequences, life and death and annoyances — in hell, you have to watch Dane Cook woodshed new material three times a day.
White Flag was born out of a desire by Haigh and co-artistic director Sean Mahoney to create an artistic outlet outside of the graduate school curriculum. Their plans, they said Thursday night, are to continue as a traveling collective presenting innovative new works like Bullets, which is a growing trend in theater. Who knows where it will take each or all of them? As Haigh told us, the company name is an acknowledgement of the shifting world of theater.
But like Kazee and West, Haigh was raised in the theatrical community of Kentucky. And as those gentlemen demonstrated Sunday, with that as your basis, the possibilities are unlimited.
Despite revelations that significant portions of Mike Daisey’s The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs were fabricated, Actors Guild of Lexington is going ahead with a production of the play, albeit in an altered form.
“We are very well aware of the controversy, obviously, and we are going to incorporate it head on into our production,” Actors Guild artistic director Eric Seale said Thursday afternoon. ”Since we have the right to adapt the script, we will make the necessary changes and provide new material that deals directly with the controversy.”
For the past two seasons, Actors Guild has delayed announcing the final production of its season so it can have an opportunity to choose plays that address current events and culture. March 13, the theater announced it would produce Daisey’s play that covers the biography of late Apple founder Steve Jobs and conditions in Chinese factories that Daisey had visited.
The Chinese factory portion of the show was presented on the public radio program This American Life in January in an episode called Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. In the program, Daisey recounted experiences such as meeting underage workers and workers exposed to hazardous materials and situations in factories that manufacture products such as iPads and iPhones.
Last Friday, This American Life announced it was retracting that episode following revelations by the public radio program Marketplace that Daisey had fabricated a number of elements in the show that had been presented as fact. In last weekend’s This American Life episode, Retraction, host Ira Glass apologized for the story and shortcuts that were taken that he said allowed erroneous material to get on the air. He also interviewed Daisey, who conceded the piece was not entirely factual but stopped short of saying he lied.
In a statement posted on his blog, Daisey said, “There is nothing in this controversy that contests the facts in my work about the nature of Chinese manufacturing. Nothing. I think we all know if there was, Ira would have brought it up.”
Seale said that while the veracity of the piece has been challenged, he thinks the story of the Chinese factories and the story of Jobs, which was not part of the This American Life presentation, are important to tell. He said there is now also the story of the truth and what role it plays in theater. He did say he had considered cancelling the show, and he suspended ticket sales for it while he and others involved contemplated what to do.
“At the end of the day, is it a compelling piece of theater? That’s what I wanted to answer the most, because that’s what I am supposed to do, that’s what I’m supposed to be putting on,” said Seale, who has also conferred with theaters in Minneapolis and Lafayette, La., that had planned productions of the show.
The play is a monologue, which Seale will perform under the direction of Lexington Children’s Theatre director Larry Snipes, May 10-20 at Actors Guild’s South Elkhorn Theatre.
Seale said that in the production, it will be clear to audiences what portions of the show have been challenged or proven false.
With the controversy, Seale said The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs may be an even more compelling piece of theater now.
“This story is still going on,” Seale said. “Who knows what may come out between now and the time the show goes up, and even while its going.”
Updated at 3:56 p.m. March 16 to reflect news developments regarding This American Life’s broadcast of Mr. Daisey Visits the Apple Factory.
Actors Guild of Lexington artistic director Eric Seale will star in the monologue show, which will be directed by Larry Snipes, producing director of Lexington Children’s Theatre. The show, playing May 10 to 20 at AGL’s South Elkhorn Village Theatre, is a monologue following the career of Jobs, the iconic founder or Apple who died last year after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.
Daisey has given more than 200 performances of the monologue in 19 cities over 18 months. An abridged version of the monologue was presented on the public radio show This American Life in January, highlighting portions that focused on the working conditions in Chinese factories that make Apple products.
However, on Friday, This American Life issued a retraction of Daisey’s piece because it “contained significant fabrications” and “we can’t vouch for its truth.” The show planned to devote the most recent episode, which airs at 8 p.m. Friday (March 16, 2012) and noon Saturday on WEKU-88.9 FM and will air at 4 p.m. Sunday on WUKY-91.3 FM, to the retraction. Host Ira Glass was scheduled to talk with Daisey “about why he misled This American Life during the fact-checking process,” according to TAL’s website.
Friday afternoon, Seale said, “Mike daisey is a storyteller, he isn’t a journalist.
“It’s not like making up what FoxConn does,” he added, referring to the electronics manufacturing company that makes many Apple devices, as well as other electronic products. “He has portrayed the actual larger situation that’s going on. He’s not writing a newspaper story. This sounds like people really struggling to discredit something.
“He wrote a play. That’s what we’re doing, a play. It doesn’t change my feeling that this is an incredibly important thing we should be doing.”
In February, Daisey made rights to the show available royalty free to any theater that wants to present it. Actors Guild will be among the first to stage the show.
To Seale, it validates the practice of waiting well into the season to announce the last show, “so that we can present something literally ripped from today’s headlines.”
Seale said he called Snipes because he was a Lexington Children’s Theatre alum who never got to be directed by Snipes.
“We had talked about him doing something at Actors Guild,” Seale said. “So when this opportunity came along, I called him, and he was totally on board.”
Vic Chaney says he was joking when he sent the email.
University of Kentucky Theatre had announced a 2011-12 season, and he saw that it had Tracy Letts’ Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County on it. Chaney had seen the show a couple of times on Broadway and loved it, so he sent UK theater department chair Nancy Jones a message.
“I said, as a joke, ‘Who’s directing it, and if they happen to go missing, don’t blame me — ha, ha,’” Chaney says. “And she said as a matter of fact, they needed somebody.”
He could have the gig if he wanted it.
Initially, he thought there was no way he could do it. First off, he lives almost 2,500 miles away, in San Francisco.
Chaney, 51, has deep roots in Lexington theater. He’s a graduate of the UK theater department and was a founding member of Actors Guild of Lexington, where he was the artistic director until a 1998 financial upheaval prompted the board to clean house. Chaney, who directed many of Actors Guild’s triumphs, including the 1997 production of Angels in America, moved to San Francisco in 1999 with his partner, DeWayne Spalding, himself a veteran of Lexington theater. Both men also are former Herald-Leader staff members.
Despite the unpleasant circumstances of his departure from Actors Guild, Chaney has maintained close contact with friends and family in Lexington and a respected position in the theater community.
But was he going to have time to come home to direct his first show here since he worked with the School for Creative and Performing Arts during the 1998-99 school year?
“It’s worked out really well,” says Chaney, who decided he could make room on his free-lance schedule to direct August: Osage County and re-enter some of the stages and corridors he walked as a student.
“It was strange the first few days here, but now it’s totally fun,” Chaney says. “The weirdest thing is that when I was here before directing, I knew most of the people. There might be one or two people I didn’t know, who were new.”
Now, he is working with a mostly student cast to bring to the stage a play that is widely considered a modern American classic.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a play that made me laugh and moved me and just seemed so big, so epic and personal all at the same time,” Chaney says of August: Osage County. “Most plays that are being written today are small, simple set, a few characters. It just seemed to defy everything that is being done in contemporary theater — and I see a lot of contemporary theater. It seems like something Tennessee Williams would have written or Eugene O’Neill would have written if they were writing today.”
Sounds like a Christmas play, right?
The theater describes St. Nicholas as, “the misadventures of a theatre critic from Dublin who follows a beguiling young woman to London where he is unexpectedly drawn into a coven of vampires. Equal parts haunting and hilarious, St. Nicholas is a perfect example of great Irish storytelling by one of the top playwrights of our time.”
It is also storytelling by the author of AGL’s next Main Stage production, The Seafarer, which runs Dec. 1-11.
Presenting St. Nicholas is visiting artist Jerome Davis, artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh, N.C. Davis has also directed or performed at Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I.; the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival; and New York’s Avalon Rep, 29th Street Rep, New Dramatists, Soho Rep, the Barrow Group and Columbia University.
There are only three performances: 8 p.m. Oct. 28, 29 and 2 p.m. Oct. 30.
Also offering up spooky theater this weekend is Lexington Children’s Theatre with The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe and SummerFest with a revival of its production of The Rocky Horror Show at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom Oct. 30 and 31.
Oct9Filed under: Studio Players, SummerFest, Theater, Transylvania University, UK, Woodford County Theatre; Tagged as: Actors Guild of Lexington, Almost, August: Osage County, Bluegrass Community and Technical College Theater, Joe Ferrell, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre, Maine, Project SEE Theatre, SummerFest, The Rocky Horror Show, Transylvania University, University of Kentucky Theatre, Vic Chaney
When I heard that Central Kentucky was going to get a production of Tracy Letts’ 2008 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County in the 2011-12 arts season, I was excited … the first time it was announced.
That was the University of Kentucky Theatre’s production, scheduled for February and directed by former Actors Guild of Lexington artistic chief Vic Chaney.
Then, Kentucky Conservatory Theatre/SummerFest announced it was going to mount its first indoor, school-year performance … of August: Osage County.
I am by no means suggesting that this production, which opens Thursday, will be a letdown. It is being directed by the dean of Lexington theater directors, Joe Ferrell, features an all-star cast of Lexington actors and an innovative set design. On paper, this is a great production.
And I am not trying to suggest that anyone was trying to bigfoot anyone with these productions – when this happens, it’s not always clear who had dibs on the show.
But I will say without reservation that it is indicative of a tiresome trend: multiple theaters in Central Kentucky putting up productions of the same show within a relatively short period.
Earlier this year, we had Bluegrass Community and Technical College Theater and Actors Guild of Lexington co-producing The Rocky Horror Show, closely followed by SummerFest presenting The Rocky Horror Show. A little later this fall, Project SEE Theatre and Transylvania University will present John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, a show The Woodford Theatre already has scheduled for early next year.
Seeing so much duplication makes me ask: Are there so few published plays available that theaters think they have no choice but to program the same show another company is already presenting?
Audiences who couldn’t get into two recent plays in Lexington will have another shot at the sold out shows.
Actors Guild of Lexington has added two performances of its current hit Belle Brezing at 8 p.m. June 15 and 16 at the theater at 4383 Old Harrodsburg Road in the Elkhorn Village shops. The play by Lexington writer Margaret C. Price is about the legendary Lexington madam who operated a highly successful brothel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Tickets are $20 for the public, $15 students and seniors and they are available at the theater box office, by calling 1-866-811-4111 or visiting actors-guild.org.
On the Verge will revive its production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Three Viewings at 8 p.m. July 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. July 24 at Milward Funeral Home, 1509 Trent Boulevard. The site-specific show features three monologues by people at funeral homes. Tickets are $20 and available at the Downtown Arts Center box office, 141 East Main Street, by calling (859) 225-0370 or visiting lexarts.tix.com.
Both shows essentially sold out before performances started.
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