The Remy Bumppo theater company kicked off their very exciting 15th Anniversary Season on Monday with a lively salon discussion. Moderated by WBEZ radio’s self-titled Dueling Critics, Remy Bumppo’s artistic director, Timothy Douglas, and three outside theater analysts each representing one of the three plays talked concepts with their subscribers and fans. Douglas established an intimate feel right away—he sang softly “there is a light, there is a light”—and immediately, the radio critics, Jonathan Abarbanel and Kelly Kleiman, undercut it with a mock glare at each other and a grudging handshake. Already, the audience started laughing. The rest was analysis without pretension—and a lot of humor. The season, entitled The American Evolution, articulates a change from Civil War to Civil Rights to civil disobedience in America.
Remy Bumppo leads with Eugene O’Neil’s Mourning Becomes Electra, because the best way to start an American story is with a Greek tragedy. The play is O’Neil’s three-volume, thirteen-act adaptation of The Oresteia, presented here in the manageable length of three hours. With such a truncated script, Douglas said a big challenge for the actors will be keeping true to the epic arcs of their characters. The length is not the only thing that makes Electra such an ambitious project. O’Neil is renowned for his “complex portraits of masculinity onstage,” said Rebecca Rugg, Artistic Producer of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, the delegate chosen to speak for Electra. In this play, he shifted the focus from Orestes, the protagonist of The Oresteia, to Electra, his sister, named Lavinia in the play. For Douglas, the men of the play seem dead from the beginning. Lavinia, sexualized and awakened by her trip to “The South Seas,” is a source of life and hope. Her decision at the end of the play to seal herself into a tomb—the scene Douglas refers to as “crazytown”—is not a hysterical, raving psychotic break, the story most productions tell. Instead, it is a heroic, brave decision to break the curse once and for all, no matter the cost. In Greek mythology, this is the infamous Curse of the House of Atreus, which was ended by Orestes and not Electra. The actress playing Lavinia has a lot on her plate. We can look forward to a fascinating interpretation both of her arc and the play as a whole. Don’t let the length dissuade you, the Gordon Edelstein adaptation should trim off all the fat, keeping it fast-paced and engaging.
The second play couldn’t be more different, except that it still isn’t really American. Pierre de Marivaux’s Changes of Heart (you might recognize it as The Double Inconstancy as it’s often translated) is a French comedy with Commedia Dell’Arte influences about “the ecstasy and the tyranny of falling in love,” Douglas said. Although we the audience members “laugh because we think ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been there,’” the characters find nothing about their situations amusing—more like excruciating. That’s the best kind of comedy. Douglas insisted that the American connection is present. The play is about a king falling in love with a bergère, a shepherdess, or as Douglas put it, a story of “different classes pursing love together,” which at the time was “heresy.” He’s updating the story; it’s set in 1960’s Chicago and not only money but also race separates the two protagonists. The setting alone makes this a production that won’t happen twice, not to mention the use of Stephen Wadsworth’s dynamic translation, which has “stuck with” Douglas for a long time. Daniel Desormeaux, professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Chicago, the panelist for Changes of Heart, said that intellectuals often dismiss Marivaux as “light” compared with Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas, but they forget that Changes of Heart was written only seven years after the death of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who commanded absolute power and took what he wanted, including women, by force. The notion that a king would woo anyone, especially someone of low class, was “revolutionary.” The king in Changes of Heart “wants love for who he is,” not because he is a king, said Desormeaux. The king actually must disguise himself in order to be seen for a real human being. Desormeaux said that it is only in disguise that his “true nature” emerges. French comedians love performing Marivaux because his characters are so genuine. The challenge in acting them is sentiment, or “through language, expressing who you are.” Add to that the idea that inconstant is not the same as unfaithful, at least in France. “If I am inconstant,” explained Desormeaux, “I love my wife. But there are a lot of other women.” Changes of Heart is likely to be fun, genuine, and full of French logic.
The third and final play is written by the very much American and alive playwright Lee Blessing, whose work has been produced all over the country—his most famous plays include Eleemosynary and A Walk in the Woods. Remy Bumppo is staging a less-known one-man-show of Blessing’s called Chesapeake. Constituting the “civil disobedience” portion of the American Evolution, Chesapeake is about a gay performance artist who steals his senator’s prized dog after his funding was cut. The title of the play refers to the poor dog, named Lucky, who is a Chesapeake Bay retriever. The panelists got mysterious all of a sudden and refused to elaborate about this one, promising that they had only “scratched the surface” of the plot. I’m intrigued. Peter Taub, performing arts program director at the Museum of Contempory Art, who came to discuss Chesapeake, told us that Blessing was responding to the government crack-down on the arts in the late nineties when artists were refused grants because they couldn’t be controlled. “The conservative right,” he said, “was censoring and using art politically.” Blessing satirizes the government’s efforts to control art, as well as performance art itself—always a popular target. It shows, says Taub, that “attempts to control don’t do anything except come back to yourself.” The play was not well received in its New York opening, and one-man-shows are always a challenge, but Douglas clearly thinks that if anyone can pull it off, it’s Greg Matthew Anderson, the star. As always, Douglas was humble and coolly confident, claiming his job will be simple, just guiding Anderson towards finding the right energy and then sitting back and doing nothing. We probably aren’t getting the whole story there.
These shows will be fresh and relevant. Be there. Tell your friends, especially your young friends. Give them a subscription for their birthdays. I counted three people in the audience, including myself, whose hair hasn’t turned gray. We need to share this kind of theater with the next generation; this is the kind of work that will get them excited.
Also, don’t miss the Between The Lines pre-show lecture series, each of which features a conversation with the writer, the play itself, and then a post-show discussion with the writer and cast. Yes, that means that you will have the opportunity to talk to Gordon Edelstein, Stephen Wadsworth, and last but not least the famous Lee Blessing. Go get inspired.
As soon as the WBEZ techies post it, you can listen to the full conversation at www.wbez.org/amplified.
Electra runs from September 21 – October 30, Changes from November 23 – January 8, and Chesapeake from March 28 – May 6. The Between The Lines conversations are October 15, December 10, and April 14 at 1:30 PM. To get more information, purchase tickets, donate, or pledge your undying love, visit www.remybumppo.org, or call 773-404-7336.