PLAYS BY ATHOL FUGARD, EDWARD ALBEE AND KATORI HALL HAVE LAUNCHED A NEW ERA IN NEW YORK THEATREGOING
BY HENRY EDWARDS
Imagine a beautiful new theatrical complex that houses a trio of intimate state-of the-art theatres. This institution produces plays of the highest quality to fill those theatres, and charges a mere $25 to attend each production. performances.
Does it sound like fantasy? It certainly does—unless you are James Houghton, founder and artistic director of Signature Theatre Company. Houghton is a man who set out to make his dream come true and refused to stop until he got his way.
Houghton launched his theatrical adventure story in 1991. Setting out to create a playwright's theatre, he came up with the brilliant notion of establishing the first not-for-profit theatre company in the United States that would devote an entire season to the work of a single living playwright with a significant body of work. Thus Signature Theatre Company was born.
Edward Albee, Horton Foote, John Guare, Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, August Wilson and Lanford Wilson are some of the pkaywrights to receive Signature's immersive treatment.
Shortly after 9/11, Houghton launched an effort to create a permanent home for his organization. Eleven years later on January 31, that desire at long last came to fruition when after four years of planning and fund raising and two years of construction, Signature threw open the doors to its splendid new home, the $70 million, Frank Gehry-designed Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street.
Lodged between the structural columns of a 62-story tower and spanning an entire city block, the 75,000-square-foot complex houses three theatres, the Alice Griffin Jewel Box, the End Stage and the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, a studio theatre, rehearsal studio, café and bookstore. All of the facilities occupy the same level.
What connects them is an amazingly large lobby. Convinced that working in and attending the theatre should be a shared communal experience, Houghton envisions this comfortable and roomy space as the perfect location for pre- and post-show gatherings and professional meetings that can be scheduled to take place at any time throughout the day and evening.
By any standard, Pershing Square Signature Center is a stunning achievement. It also happens to be only the third Frank Gehry structure to be erected in New York City. Its primary building materials, which include plywood, glass and concrete, have been chosen to reinforce the distinctly audience-friendly nature of the entire endeavor.
SIGNATURE'S "DECADE OF ACCESS" PROGRAM: In 2005, in its desire to build new audiences and to remove the price barrier to those interested in experiencing live theatre, the Signature Ticket Initiative was established to provide unbelievably low priced $20 tickets to its productions. The program’s next phase, "A Decade of Access," sets a price of only $25 for all single tickets during an initial announced run. Those tickets normally cost $75 apiece. Signature is committed to raising the $20 million it will take to underwrite this ten-year program.
RESIDENCY ONE: Athol Fugard, the 79-year-old South African playwright, novelist, actor, best known for his political plays opposing the South African system of apartheid, has been selected as Signature's first playwright-in-residence in its new space.
"Blood Knot," Fugard’s agonized 1961 two-character apartheid parabl launched the residency (and the new facility) on January 31. The production, directed by the author, ended its limited engagement on March 11.
The series continues with “My Children! My Africa!” (May 1-June 10) followed by the New York premiere of “The Train Driver” August 14-September 23).
"BLOOD KNOT": The Fugard classic takes place between the patchwork walls of a one-room shack where two biracial South African brothers grapple with crippling poverty and lonely isolation. Morris (Scott Shepherd), the punctilious force that keeps their room tidy, is light-skinned enough to pass for white, but dark-skinned Zach (Colman Domingo) feels imprisoned by his job at a whites-only park. Although tied together by blood, apartheid has seared their souls, leading to the revelations that, in reality, Morris views Zach with contempt, and Zach harbors thoughts of killing Morris.
“Blood Knot" has earned a place in theatre history as the first South African play written in native idiom and performed with an interracial cast in front of an interracial audience.
A 1964 Off Broadway production launched Fugard in the United States as an author whose insightful and provocative play had provided a searing indictment of apartheid.
The play encompasses many of the ideas that permeate Fugard’s later body of work. His characters, both black and white, often are victims, the whites being victims of their rigid, cast-iron restrictions, the blacks by the effects of apartheid social-facism.
Fugard suggests these victims suffer from R. D. Laing's "ontological insecurity." The symptoms of this emotional illness include a loss of identity, feelings of being insubstantial, a fundamental distrust of other people and a deep seated terror of experiencing the world.
Pessimistic by nature, Fugard seems to accept inhumanity and prejudice as permanent conditions. He also views humiliation and role-playing are essential for survival. In Fugard’s Beckettian universe, the writer’s handful of characters often transform themselves into other characters and personalities in order to cope with the nightmarish quality of their existences.
Signature's revival of "Blood Knot" generally received rave reviews. Yet Charles Isherwood of The New York Times, although in the minority, came cloest to having an accurate reaction to the effort, writing: “The production is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally engaging. On the surface the performances are impeccable, but a crucial spark of authentic feeling remains stubbornly absent.”
“Blood Knot” was staged in the 191-seat Alice Griffin Jewel Box. Dripping with charm, the theatre has been designed to resemble a small European opera house replete with a horseshoe-shaped orchestra and box seats.
For the record, there are those who, despite the power of Fugard's themes, find his plays needlessly verbose and plagued by endless repetitions, interminable analyses and needless explanations.
COMING NEXT: "MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA": Written in 1989 shortly before the end of apartheid, the play is set in a classroom in a small Eastern Cape Karoo town in South Africa in 1984, and concerns Mr. M, an idealistic teacher, who seeks to provide a future for his gifted student Thami by forming a debate team with Isabel, a spirited student from the local white school. But outside the classroom Mr. M’s hopes for Thami are challenged by their generational divide and by increasing political unrest. Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs.
COMING NEXT: "THE TRAIN DRIVER": After reading a newspaper story describing a woman who dragged herself on to a railway track with her three children and lay down in the path of a train, Fugard was inspired to write “The Train Driver.”
In typical Fugard fashion, the play revolves a white man, Roelf, a train driver, who has spent weeks searching for the identities of a mother and child he unintentionally killed with his train. After a fruitless journey through a series of shanty towns, he encounters an old black gravedigger named Simon who helps the desperate man unburden his conscience. The playwright directs his own work.
LEGACY PROGRAM: This program provides a homecoming for past Signature playwrights-in-residence. The Signature Series presents “signature” or more well-known works by these graduates; the Premiere Series, presents New York and world premieres.
Signature's first “legacy” production, a superbly rendered production of Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque,” directed by David Esbjornson, gave its first performance on February 14, opened to generally terrific reviews, was extended twice and finally closed on April 15.
Albee was Signature’s 1993-1994 playwright-in-residence, and the Albee season has been credited with stimulating a new round of interest in the playwright's career. The writer returned in the 2001-2002 10th anniversary season for the presentation of “Occupant,” later staged again in the 2007-2008 season.
Albee's close association made him the perfect choice for the first legacy production in the new space.
"THE LADY FROM DUBUQUE": When "Dubuque" opened on Broadway in January 1980, critics expressed confusion and audiences proved non existent, and the play closed after a mere 12 performances. The production marked the beginning of a ten-year low in Albee’s career.
David Esbjornson's staging resussitated in grand fashion a play thought to be dead, providing a major triumph for Signature at the outset of its inaugural season.
In "Dubuque," Laila Robins offers a devastating portrayal of a woman dying of cancer. Michael Hayden is equally brilliant as her distraught husband. Jane Alexander is cool and crisp as an angel of death who calls herself “the lady from Dubuque.” Peter Francis James is delicious as the lady’s travelling companion, Oscar.
“The Lady from Dubuque” held court in the 299-seat End Stage. This space comes equipped with a 60-foot-wide, 40-feet deep proscenium stage that puts some Broadway playhouses to shame.
RESIDENCY FIVE: Signature’s newest initiative provides five-year residencies for multiple early- and mid-career playwrights to support the creation and staging of new work. Each writer will receive a minimum of three world premieres. Needless to say, this is the first program of its kind in the American theatre.
Residency Five inaugural playwrights include Annie Baker, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan and Regina Taylor.
The world premiere of Katori Hall’s ”Hurt Village” launched the series on February 7. The debut season also includes the U.S. premiere of Will Eno’s “Title and Deed”(May 8-June 3), directed by Judy Hegarty Lovet, and the world premiere of "Medieval Play" (May 15–June 24) written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
"HURT VILLAGE": Hall’s incendiary, extraordinarily well acted, portrayal of the end of a long summer in Hurt Village, a housing project in Memphis, was as enthralling as it was overly long and undisciplined. Hall has enormous talent and imagination, and it will be fascinating to watch her development as a Signature Residency Five playwright.
"Hurt Village" was staged in the black-box Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. A model of flexibility with a seating range between 199 and 250, the Linney has the ability to be converted into a wide variety of seating plans.
COMING NEXT: "TITLE AND DEED": Will Eno wrote this one-man play specifically for the Irish actor and Beckett interpretor Conor Lovett who portrays a nameless traveler from a far off place who searches for connection and solace in an unknown country. Judy Hegarty Lovett directs. Eno’s play is characterized as a funny and sad meditation on mortality, loneliness, innocence, home, family, love, funerals, words and the world condition.
COMING NEXT: "MEDIEVAL PLAY": In Kenneth Lonergan’s new comedy, two French mercenary knights set out on a quest for relative moral redemption against the classic comic background of late 14th century ecclesiastical politics. It’s a story of friendship, love, noble feats of arms, indiscriminate brutality, the progressive refinement of medieval table manners and the general decline of the chivalric ideal at the onset of the Great Papal Schism of 1378.
More information on Signature Center and Signature Theatre Company’s expanded programming can be found at www.signaturecenter.org.