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Theater 2013-14: Fantasy ‘Old Man, Old Moon’ opens Writers’ season; new home draws near

Submitted by on Sep 3, 2013 – 2:53 pm

PigPen Theatre's 'The Old Man and the Old Moon,' an off-Broadway hit in 2012, is being re-mounted and re-thought with Stuart Carden at Writers' Theatre

Ninth in a series of season previews: In what is likely its last season before new theater construction begins, Writers’ mixes Ibsen, Strindberg, McPherson with a PigPen fantasy and a brand new musical.

By Nancy Malitz

As artistic director Michael Halberstam began putting together the 2013-14 season at Writers’ Theatre with associate artistic director Stuart Carden, one coincidence seemed too good to be true: Halberstam’s right-hand man had been the teacher, at Carnegie-Mellon University, of an eclectic group of seven buddies called the PigPen Theatre Co., who were the buzz of Greenwich Village for their folksy fable called “The Old Man and the Old Moon.” 

The seven-member Pigpen Theatre troupe in 'The Old Man and the Old Moon,' off-Broadway in 2012. The show comes to Writers' Theatre in September 2013 (Joan Marcus)The charming off-Broadway saga, about a fellow who gets distracted from his job to fill the leaky moon with light, was told with puppets, flashlights and whimsical devices of the sort that kids on a creative streak would find in the typical garage.

Now that same show has been through two full workshops and a four-week rehearsal process at Writers’ with the additional fuel, as Halberstam puts it, of Carden in the room. “They had never worked with a director before,” marvels Halberstam. “With his strong literary background, Stuart has helped them to cement an arc for the piece and we hope that it will be produced by other theater companies who will realize its extraordinary literary and theatrical merit. We are just thrilled to be doing it. It’s the same design team, all the same actors. An enormous amount of the material remains, but the script has been decidedly fleshed out and the time has been reduced (from more than two hours) to 90 minutes. I think there is a more streamlined feel to it, with significant comical wallop.”

New Writers' Theatre schematic view from Green Bay Road on the site of the Woman's Library Club at Tudor Court © Studio Gang ArchitectsQuite possibly the last show to be produced in Writers’ current primary space, the genteel Woman’s Library Club on Tudor Court, is a new musical to end the season by Alan Schmuckler and Laura Eason called “Days Like Today,” directed by Halberstam. The building will be razed to build a new theatrical facility designed by Studio Gang Architects. “It’s not 100 percent official,” says Halberstam, “but this is our hope at this point. After that we’ll be in a transition process in terms of working at the bookstore (the tiny alternate cubbyhole space beloved of actors) and possibly an additional venue in partnership with another institution for 16 to 18 months.” The new theater is expected to open at some point in the 2015-16 season and will preserve the current venue’s intimacy while providing amenities Halberstam is eagerly anticipating: “I want to say to an actor, ‘Yes, you can take a shower.’”

The 2013-14 season in brief:

  • “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” a new play with music by PigPen Theatre Co. with director Stuart Carden (Chicago premiere, Sept. 3-Nov. 10): Featuring music from their debut album “Bremen,” this indie fantasy with puppetry tells the whimsical tale of a man who sets off in pursuit of his wife, abandoning his habit of refilling the leaky old moon with light.  Sweet chaos ensues. PigPen members are Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen, Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Arya Shahi and Dan Weschler. In this Broadway.com video you can meet them all. (Performed at the main space, 325 Tudor Court.)
  • Playwright Conor McPherson (nickhernbooks.co.uk)“Port Authority” by Conor McPherson (Midwest premiere, Oct. 29-Feb. 16, 2014): A three-hander of interconnected monologues by the Irish playwright whom Halberstam considers to be “one of the most important writers in English creating contemporary theater work. You trust so much that he knows what he doing, you almost feel all you really need to do is cast it well.”  William Brown, a regular at Writers’, will direct Patrick Clear, Rob Fenton and John Hoogenakker. “It’s just a fantastic piece of writing,” says Halberstam, “the way the monologues gently intertwine with each other. It’s a slow, careful literary and poetic seduction that forces you to lean forward. And I think it will be a privilege to see it in the bookstore, where you will catch every nuance. (Performed at the bookstore, 664 Vernon Ave. )
  • Kate Fry is set to play Hedda Gabler at Writers' Theatre.“Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen (Jan.  7-March 16, 2014):  “I’ve always felt we should do ‘Hedda Gabler’ at Writers’, but I never found my way into it and none of the directors in our fold came up with a compelling enough reason to do it either.” says Halberstam of the 1890 Norwegian drama. “When you are working with the classics that an audience has some familiarity with, you want to have a fresh take that will allow the play to seem contemporary and slightly revelatory. What you often end up with is a sparklingly clever Hedda, and everybody around her looks like a complete idiot. But Kimberly Senior, who is one of the most gifted directors I’ve had the fortune to know, came to me with the idea that Hedda plants the seeds of her own destruction, which will give the play a new dignity, and that for me was huge. So when I asked Kimberly who should play Hedda, she said, ‘Oh, Kate Fry, 100 percent’ and that was it. It was maybe a five- or six-minute exchange and we knew we should do it.” (Performed at the main space, 325 Tudor Court.)
  • “The Dance of Death” by August Strindberg, in a new version by Conor McPherson (American premiere, April 1-July 20, 2014): The bitterly dark 1900 Swedish comedy of a 25-year married couple who ensnare a visitor into their vicious rounds of marital combat, Strindberg’s huge multi-part work has daunted would-be producers. “Like all Strindberg, this is a titanic struggle between ultimately suburban characters,”  says Halberstam. “But in whittling this down, an adapter makes choices that ultimately shape a unique point of view. What does he want to see? A nice comedy? Protracted agony? Psychological to the heights? I am thrilled to have what amounts to two Conor McPherson pieces — one a play and the other an adaptation — in the same location during the same season.” Directed by Henry Wishcamper, the play will feature Shannon CochranPhilip Earl Johnson and Larry Yando, which Halberstam anticipates to be  “three titanic actors in that tiny little space, where the lives of these plays shift and change in such an organic way, even from one night to the next.”  (Performed at the bookstore, 664 Vernon Ave. )
  • Alan Schmuckler's new musical "Days Like Today," with book by Laura Eason, will close out Writers' 2013-14 season.“Days Like Today,” music and lyrics by Alan Schmuckler, book by Laura Eason, inspired by the plays of Charles L. Mee (world premiere May 6 – July 13, 2014): Both Eason and Schmuckler are young and prodigiously gifted. Eason has written more than 15 plays including “Sex with Strangers” (Steppenwolf 2011) and Schmuckler has just come off an acting stint in Lincoln Center Theater’s “Nikolai and the Others,”  as well as taking a bow at New York’s Public Theater for his musical “We Three Lizas.” You may have seen him as Mark Cohen in the American Theater Company/About Face 2012 production of “Rent.” Says Halberstam: “We had been looking for a way to engage with Laura because we love her so much, and we came up with the idea to put her together with Alan, who is fan-freakin-tastic. He just keeps popping out song after song. To be only 26 or 27 and to have had two musicals fully staged, already, by significant Chicago theaters is a very impressive achievement.” Halberstam will direct this Writers’ commission, with musical direction by Doug Peck, choreography by Tommy Rapley and actors Colleen Fee, Susie McMonagleWill Mobley, Jeff Parker, Stephen SchellhardtGene Weygandt and Jarrod Zimmerman. (Performed at the main space, 325 Tudor Court.)

Getting there:

Both of Writers’ performance venues are located in the northern Chicago suburb of Glencoe, along Lake Michigan’s shore. Three of this season’s productions – “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” “Hedda Gabler” and “Days Like Today” —  will be staged at the company’s larger venue, 325 Tudor Court. “Port Authority” and “The Dance of Death” will be given in the smaller space at the rear of Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave.  The theaters are also accessible via  the Metra Union Pacific North line, Glencoe stop.

Writers’ Theatre was founded in 1992 “to explore productions in which the word on the page and the artists that bring the word to life hold primary importance.” As the company enters its third decade, plans are moving forward for the new theater building on the site of the present main stage on Tudor Court.

The new theater center is being designed by 2011 MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang and Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects. In July, the National Endowment for the Arts named Writers’ Theatre and the Village of Glencoe as joint recipients of an Our Town grant of $100,000 to support the design project.

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