Tim Bond: Syracuse Stage’s
producing artistic director promises
an ambitious schedule for the
2008-2009 season. Michael Davis photo.
Most League of Regional Theaters (LORT) companies, like Syracuse Stage, were founded more than a generation ago, when audiences told people they were dying to see classics like The Cherry Orchard. And they did, maybe once. Since then audiences have grown more fickle and, on average, older. For his first season on the job Bond has chosen to reach out to new audiences by doing the new. At least three, possibly four, of next season’s subscription series will be unfamiliar to all but the cognoscenti, the serious theater buffs. We’re going new places.
Bond’s announced six plays, plus arguably the seasonal co-production with the Syracuse University Drama Department, Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, are about real people and real stories. Secondly, the shows are about dreams, either realized or deferred. We can see what he’s talking about in the season opener and a spring 2009 production, the two best-known titles on his list; Bond will direct both shows.
August Wilson’s 1984 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Sept. 8-Oct. 4) depicts the first recording session, in Chicago circa 1927, of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues.” Wilson’s first big Broadway hit comes with a power that sneaks up on you. Only gradually do we realize that more of the action swells up from Rainey’s nearly anonymous backup musicians. Widely admired in regional theater, Ma Rainey has been avoided by other companies because its large cast breaks fragile budgets.
Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s The Diary of Anne Frank (March 31-May 3) began life as a Golden Age television drama and has since become one of the most-often produced American dramas in the last generation. It has been a cash cow for Todd Ellis’ Syracuse Civic Theatre in recent years, suggesting that the audience for Anne’s message of tolerance, “people are good at heart,” is inexhaustible. Bond will direct a new adaptation by Wendy Kesselman.
In contrast, the world premiere of Ping Chong’s Don’t Look Back: Stories from the Salt City (Oct. 14-Nov. 2) is quite literally unprecedented, unlike anything Syracuse Stage has ever done before. Chong (born in 1946) has been on the theater scene a long time and was once a performance artist whose name would be mentioned in the same breath with Laurie Anderson. The winner of numerous awards and grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Chong has developed a unique dramatic form based on interviews with actual people in different localities, producing 30 shows since 1992 in cities as different as Charleston and Minneapolis, Rotterdam and Berlin. As a Canadian-born Chinese gay man who is often classed as an “other,” Chong has favored those living outside the dominant culture. His championing of estranged newcomers makes him sound like the anti-Lou Dobbs.
Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins (Jan. 27-Feb. 15) portrays one of Ma Rainey’s less successful contemporaries. As her surviving recordings testify, if Jenkins (1868-1944) was not the worst soprano who ever lived, she was just the worst who insisted on appearing in public. Self-deluded and self-funded, her recitals filled concert halls for decades, a constant source of embarrassment to her long-suffering accompanist. Souvenir ran for three months in New York City in winter 2004-2005, and will also be produced by Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company this June. It should not be confused with the British comedy Glorious! by Peter Quilter, covering much of the same ground.
Like Chong, playwright Bridget Carpenter has been a regular recipient of some of the most competitive grants, including the Guggenheim. Little-known in this part of the world, she has been produced by Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Mass., an organization with many Syracuse connections. Her Up (Feb. 25-March 15) is a fictionalized dramatization of a real event: Larry Walters, renamed Walter Griffin, was the ordinary Joe who soared 16,000 feet into the air by attaching his lawn chair to 42 weather balloons. Ignoring his harebrained quest for 15 minutes of fame, already examined in the 2003 Australian film Danny Deckchair, Carpenter’s Up instead probes the disenchantment that follows. Up comes in sequence with Carpenter’s earlier Fall (2000) and has been produced mostly on the West Coast, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2006.
Regina Taylor’s Crowns (May 13-June 7) is the only musical ever to have been based on a coffee-table book of lush photography. That was Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s tome devoted to loving pictures of hats worn by black women in Southern churches. Playwright Taylor has also been an actress, notable as the first black Juliet on Broadway, Anita Hill in the 1999 TV biopic Strange Justice, her role opposite Syracuse Stage alum Sam Waterston in the acclaimed television series I’ll Fly Away and as a regular on the current CBS-TV drama The Unit. Her Crowns, which ran off-Broadway in 2002, is a joyous celebration of culture and tradition, mixing a number of musical styles. It has been popular with other regional theaters over the last five years. Taylor promises a revised book for the Syracuse Stage opening.
Godspell (Nov. 28-Dec. 28) is the seasonal musical, done in tandem with the SU Drama Department; it will retain the services of much-admired choreographer Anthony Salatino, who’s responsible for the success of the last nine years. Joining him from New York City’s Rebel Theatre is stage director Rajendra Ramoon Maharj, who will give this production of the 1972 musical, a retelling of the Gospel of St. Matthew, both international and multicultural dimensions.
Running concurrently during the holiday season at Syracuse Stage’s Arthur Storch Theatre, the usual home of SU Drama productions, is The Santaland Diaries (Dec. 2-Jan. 4), David Sedaris’ famously mordant account of having been a gay man hired to be an elf for Macy’s department store. Sedaris was cleaning houses in Chicago when Santaland, his postmodern classic monologue of the nightmare before Christmas, burst upon the world in a 1992 National Public Radio broadcast. This one-person show is just the antidote for an overdose of dextrose and sucrose during the darkest days of the year.