Saturday, June 18, 2016

Something Old and Something New

The theater scene in Southwest Florida definitely quiets down over the summer. But there is some still some theater to be had. Urbanite Theatre is opening "Dry Land" next week, and Florida Studio Theatre has an entire summer series.  And, of course, there's the upcoming season to get busy scheduling.

Playwright Lillian Hellman
Asolo Repertory Theatre is heading into the fifth and final year of its exploration of the American Character.  While most of the season sounds great, I was on the fence about "The Little Foxes," a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1939. My lack of enthusiasm wasn't for any reason other than the fact that I'm not a huge fan of revivals. There are so many worthy contemporary plays available for production, why look to the past?  (FYI, Asolo Rep isn't the only theater that believes "The Little Foxes" warrants further attention. Manhattan Theatre Club is also mounting a revival this fall, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternately taking on the role of Regina.)

While Asolo Rep is dark for much of the summer, its Guild gives its members a chance to get their theater fix with get-togethers to discuss plays being produced in the upcoming season. Next week's meeting will focus on "The Little Foxes." Always eager for an opportunity to talk about theater, I signed up, ordered a copy of the script, and got reading.  For those of you who haven't seen the play (or the movie), I won't give too much away. Suffice it to say that the Hubbard family is not warm and fuzzy. In fact, Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" took his cue from the Hubbard siblings when he declared that "Greed is good." Though the Hubbards have money, they want more. When a lucrative business opportunity presents itself, the siblings are willing to go to great lengths to line their (individual) pockets. Regina sums up the family attitude when she says. "You know what I've always said when people told me we were rich? I said I think you should either be a [Negro] or a millionaire. In between, like us, what for?"

Taylor as Regina
The play is melodramatic, and I can understand why the character of Regina would be appealing to play. The role, first performed by Tallulah Bankhead, has been taken on by Bette Davis, Anne Bancroft, and Stockard Channing.  Elizabeth Taylor made her stage debut as Regina in a 1981 revival.  Interestingly--and sadly--Hellman based the story on her own family, with Regina being modeled on her grandmother.

I typically like to go into a play cold and let the plot unfold before me. In the case of "The Little Foxes," though, reading the play and thinking about its themes in advance has made me more interested in seeing it. All things being equal, I prefer to experience new writing. But classics have earned their stature for a reason, and I have no doubt that Asolo Rep's take on the show will be well-done.

Playwright Mark St. Germain
And now for something brand spanking new -- "Relativity" by Mark St. Germain at Florida Studio Theatre.  FST is a core member of the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit theaters that "champions the development, production, and continued life of new plays."

One way NNPN accomplishes its mission is through its Rolling World Premieres. Each new play in the program is mounted by at least three theaters within a 12-month period. This provides the playwright the opportunity to collaborate with different creative teams to bring his work to the stage. Participating theaters receive $7500 towards the costs of the production. Since its inception in 1998, NNPN has introduced theatergoers to more than 50 new plays.

St. Germain's "Relativity" is part of this year's Rolling World Premiere program and will be produced as well at theaters in Skokie, Illinois, Seattle and Iowa City. I jumped at the chance to sit in on a rehearsal of the show and can now count myself among the handful of people comprising the play's very first audience. (How cool is that?)

The foundation for the show is a little known fact about Albert Einstein and first wife Mileva Maric. In 1902, before the couple married, they had a daughter Lieserl. No mention of the child can be found after 1903. In "Relativity," St. Germain envisions one possible explanation of what happened to Lieserl. The scenario enables him to explore the differences between Einstein's public and private personas.

Actors Robert Zukerman, Ginger Lee McDermott and Sally Bondi made the play come alive without costumes or a real set. Their performance was engrossing, and I found myself wondering which parts were fact and which were derived from St. Germain's imagination. I was particularly interested in a reference to a contract written by Einstein outlining the conditions on which he would stay married to Mileva. The agreement included mandates that she would expect no affection from him and that she would stop talking to him upon request.  (A Google search revealed that such a contract did in fact exist. Click here to read the agreement in its entirety. The document, along with a motherlode of other Einstein correspondence, was auctioned off at Christies in 1996.)

"Relativity" will run at FST from June 22 - July 2. If you want an immersive Mark St. Germain theater experience, you can see a matinee of "Relativity" and an evening performance of his "The Fabulous Lipitones" on June 25 only. Thanks to FST for providing a place for theatergoers who brave the Florida summers to sit back and enjoy the show. 

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