After all this time, do we really need the theater? One need only pick up a newspaper (or go online), turn on the television, or look out the window to encounter high drama and big laughs at every turn. From the political landscape to the cultural scene, from business to religion to sports, events in real life, evolving rapidly and taking surprising turns, threaten to overwhelm the classic three-act form of plays going back to the Greeks. It is an unusual time to be a writer; just about anything one dreams up seems to happen on the news first. (Not to mention surprises that pop up, such as Sarah Palin’s traveling one-woman show.)
The theater is different. Conventions exist, if only to be discarded; performances may lack the breaking-news abruptness of real events but, having been honed and rehearsed, may also break through to a transcendent feeling that touches a group of strangers together for one night. The theater reaches out to the audience, both individually and collectively, in ways that are unique from the other arts. In this age of solipsistic youth when a group of friends can sit at a table, each busy texting instead of talking, one might think soliloquies would be the ticket. But if Shakespeare’s or Beckett’s plays full of characters standing around making asides to the audience seem too distant to many potential theatergoers, the idea of the theater has changed enough over the past half-century that theater can erase the stage-bound view.
The forthcoming season at the KC Repertory Theatre represents a good model for contemporary regional theater. Classics mix with premières, dramas with musicals, ensemble casts with solo performers. This is the Rep’s second season under the aegis of Eric Rosen as artistic director; he has brought a keen vitality to the enterprise, leading with his chin in some of his selections (a musical adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” for example), unafraid of leading audiences back into their seats from which many had drifted over the past seasons. Alongside the main stage Spencer Theatre at UMKC, the deftly designed littler theater Copaken Stage in the Power & Light District (where three plays will run) allows the Rep greater range to perform both large pieces like the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods” and a new adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” as well as David Cale’s one-man historical drama “Palomino.” Few theater companies are privileged enough to have the local support that the Rep has built up, and it is a pleasure to watch Rosen engage the city.
One of Rosen’s hat tricks has been to invite nationally known directors to take part in the Rep’s emerging oeuvre. Tony winners Mary Zimmerman and David Cromer have each brought their individual directing styles to the Rep from Broadway—Zimmerman’s art-directed “The Arabian Nights” and “Metamorphoses” were as memorable as Cromer’s bewitching version of “The Glass Menagerie.” Tony nominee Moisés Kaufman, who will direct the season opener “Into the Woods” (Sept 11-Oct 4), is the next intriguing guest director. His earlier successes, such as “I Am My Own Wife” and “The Laramie Project,” have shown him to be straightforward about not being straightforward; with this ambitious Sondheim fairy-tale musical Kaufman is in not-at-all-straightforward territory. The decision to put on “Into the Woods” is in keeping with Rosen’s mission to stretch the Rep into corners it might just have easily avoided with touring Disney pieces or traveling showcases for falling stars. Sondheim may be an icon; but his detractors exist, and this is hardly a kid-friend show (for that, the Rep has a new musical adaptation of Jean Shepard’s classic comedy “A Christmas Story,” Nov 20-Dec 27, and a highly stylized version of “Around the World,” Jan 22-Feb 14, 2010). Moody and (Brother) grim, like a dark version of “The Wizard of Oz,” this 1986 musical should be a tempting revival to sample.
Another unusual revival, William Inge’s 1955 drama “Bus Stop” (March 12-April 4, 2010), is set in Kansas City. Inge, our most famous local playwright to achieve national success before his suicide in 1973 at the age of seventy-two (the result of a lengthy washed-up second half to his career), fits into the dramatic milieu that Tennessee Williams fulfilled last season with “The Glass Menagerie”: that of the lonely, the misfit, the overlooked who try to put their lives into words but fail. “Bus Stop” is set entirely in one place on one occasion; its disparate characters—among them, a nightclub singer and a cowboy in love—may now seem like stereotypes but then, as Williams, Miller and other American realist playwrights were coping with the postwar aura of success above all, these characters breathed more readily. How will it hold up, supposing that the characters are still generic but our times have recycled back to the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the Fifties?
Theater is about real life, whether it was then or now. Two of the Rep’s most promising productions are of-the-minute. “Broke-ology” (Feb 19-March 21, 2010), written by a KCK native, Nathan Louis Jackson, centers around the King family of Kansas City, who must cope with the father’s illness and the two sons’ efforts to find happiness. “Venice” (April 9-May 9, 2010), a new musical by Eric Rosen and Matt Sax (who collaborated on last year’s hip hop “Clay”), is said to be a futuristic saga of two brothers amid terrorist threats. Rosen’s own musicals have split audiences, but in real life that is why there are two sides to every street. One never knows which side will be the most telling.
For tickets and information for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s fall season, call the box-office at 816-235-2700 or go online to www.kcrep.org.