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Both sides now
Lessons learned on and off the stage in 2005

We laughed, we cried. The thespian year around here can be represented by the icon of theater, that pair of Greek masks symbolizing comedy and tragedy. Most significant events have happened on-stage, though some have happened off. Here are a few lessons learned.

1) how to win a top-notch artistic director

First of all, build a company that first-class second-in-commands at other good theaters would give major organs to be offered. Second, give the search plenty of time. By the time Oskar Eustis, artistic director at Trinity Repertory Company for 11 years, was grabbed up by the legendary Public Theater late last year, Trinity Rep certainly had made a national name for itself. As for being able to make a leisurely search for someone to fill the spot, Trinity was in the enviable situation of having associate artistic director Amanda Dehnert ó obviously a top candidate ó take care of the 2005-06 season. The position finally went to Curt Columbus, the associate artistic director of Chicagoís Steppenwolf Theatre, which is probably second only to the Public in the pantheon of regional theaters both venerable and venerated. The 40-year-old director and dramaturg has attracted attention for his exciting and imaginative translations of Russian playwrights. Are we in for a good time? "I want to embrace that Adrian Hall style, in-your-face theater, as much as possible," Columbus declared.

2) how to lose a top-notch artistic director

It looked as though the above cheerful story of artistic evolution was also taking place, on a smaller scale, around the corner on Empire Street. Long-time Perishable Theatre artistic director Mark Lerman was replaced this summer by Jason Nodler, a 36-year-old hot shot from Houston. Judging from his first two blow-your-socks-off productions this fall, before his abrupt departure, theater at Perishable was capable of kicking ass and joining Gamm and 2nd Story in offering first-rate off-Trinity productions at a steady clip. And then came the behind-the-scenes battling, with Nodler disputing with the Perishable Board of Trustees over who would have final word about decisions. A face-saving reason in the form of a secondary problem ó that Perishable hadnít apprised Nodler of its shaky financial situation ó was put forth as the ostensible cause, but the real issue was control. And no artistic director worth his or her scene notes can afford to cede that. Boards have the tough and thankless job of keeping a theater solvent. Bless them. But given the choice of keeping a great board or keeping a great artistic director, we theatergoers can be forgiven for our necessary prejudice. Poor Perishable fans. What first-rate artistic director would sign on now under these humiliating terms?

3) what directing a play is all about

Speaking of directors, letís remind ourselves of some good news. Thereís enough theater happening on the Trinity fringes and in the boonies to keep a terrific freelance director like Peter Sampieri busy. Most recently the Trinity Conservatory grad got some skilled young actors at URI Theatre to freshen up the been-there-done-that Romeo and Juliet like pros. This year he also pulled off Crime and Punishment and Red Noses at the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre with the imagination and brio of jewel heists. In the first, for example, he had the theatrical sense to frame the story with a coughing and shivering Raskolnikov curled on a prison cell floor. Spot on.

4) how loquacious a monologue can be without a word spoken

In a seemingly casual romp by Ben Johnson in that Red Noses production at Gamm, audiences got to appreciate how much can be accomplished between the lines in a performance. Johnson played Sonnerie, a mute jester in the plague years, a dark setting that contrasted well with the sight of his clowning and, eventually, redeeming joy. One of my favorite slapstick moments was his miming mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a bug. The main payoff, though, was his concluding quiet response to death, which spoke as many volumes as the stack of poems written on the subject.

5) theater is a place where disadvantage can be turned to uproarious advantage

Some playwrights and directors respond like deer in headlights to problems in plays, and others are just as baffled but rub their hands in delightful anticipation. Trinity Repís Amanda Dehnert spoke often with playwright Rupert Holmes about re-shaping his Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the novel Charles Dickens left unfinished at his death. Strike one: melodrama; strike two: who killed Edwin Drood? The first problem was turned into delight by presenting this as a period musical hall comic drama, with shameless appeals for audience sympathy. The second challenge was met enthusiastically by having audiences vote on whodunnit as well as on the true identity of other characters. Brilliant, larky fun.

Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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