Setting the (Syracuse) Stage
by James MacKillop - Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
2014-15 Season at Syracuse Stage.

2012, 2011, 2009, 2002, 1987 and 1972.

Those six dates mark the original premieres of the Syracuse Stage productions for the 2014-2015 slate. In 40 seasons we have never seen such an array of, relatively speaking, new works. When regional theaters were founded two generations ago, most companies favored a mix of classics (think Shakespeare) and 20th-century champions (such as Tennessee Williams) along with recent Broadway or even off-Broadway hits. Then we went through periods where the pickings among new works were either lean or they did not travel well over the Catskills.

The warm welcome given John Logan’s Red (March 2012) and others must have changed perceptions. Some productions will push envelopes, like talk of female sexual appetite in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or left-right political squabbles at the dinner table in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, but none of these shows looks like a daunting risk.

One of the elements assuring quality control next season is relying on proven directors. Producing artistic director Timothy Bond will take on two assignments himself, with three other directors delivering recent smash hits here.

The most unconventional choice is the musical adaptation of the 1960s spoof Hairspray. This is supposed to be the big family-friendly holiday show, co-produced with the Syracuse University Drama Department, represented this season by A Christmas Carol. John Waters, auteur of the original non-musical satirical film in 1988, would probably be surprised to see that his campy vehicle featuring a plus-sized transvestite is going to fill the slot taken in previous years by Dickens as well as The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Then again, Hairspray (a Broadway smash in 2002) features a strong and loving mother, and ends with a rousing finale celebrating love crossing borders.

Audiences will laugh often this season. The ever-manic Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike should be the comic highlight of the season. Yet Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play will provoke much giddiness as it examines archaic 1880s attitudes about gender relationships.

Iron-fisted apartheid was no laughing matter in 1972 when Sizwe Banzi is Dead first opened, although a grim absurdity provokes the only response we can have. Bitter humor edges into the family drama Other Desert Cities, in which a liberal writer forces a Reaganite family to face a repressed past.

Timothy Bond’s commitment to the works of August Wilson will mean that audiences can know something of what they’re getting into with The Piano Lesson, in which a family’s identity is incorporated in an heirloom. Wilson always finds moments of comic relief.

The season opens with Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Sept. 24-Oct. 12). In this 2012 Tony Award winner, the playwright does not so much spoof Anton Chekhov as run him through a blender. No previous knowledge of the Russian master is required, however. Director Marcela Lorca wowed local audiences with Scorched (October 2013) and Caroline, or Change (February 2012).

Next is Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (Oct. 22-Nov. 9), directed by Bond. It’s back to Pittsburgh’s Hill District for what many critics rank among the top three dramas in the 10-part series. An engraved piano, and implicitly music, take a family back to roots in slavery.

Hairspray (Nov. 28-Jan. 4) features the talents of Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics), Scott Wittman (lyrics) and Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book). Rock’n’roll originated in black culture, but the TV dance programs in Baltimore showed only white kids, which makes tubby teenager Tracy Turnblad an unlikely revolutionary. Hairspray should deliver plenty of hilarity as well as the big beat. Director Bill Fennelly previously delivered A Midsummer Night’s Dream (March 2013), arguably the superlative Shakespeare in the company’s history. Choreographer David Wanstreet, who pumped exhilaration into that fusty warhorse White Christmas, must work his magic again.

The new year brings Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (Feb. 25-March 15). In the 1880s an inventive doctor knew how to address the anxieties of women suffering from “hysteria.” This 2009 hit discreetly keeps the discussion under crisp white sheets of propriety. Director May Adrales, shaper of the uproarious Chinglish (February 2014), will lend a woman’s touch.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Feb. 25-March 15), co-written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, will be a co-production with South Africa’s Market Theatre and Princeton’s McCarter Theater Center. A black man struggles to support his family under apartheid. Kani, a legendary South African actor-director, will guide this production.

Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities (April 8-26) sets the scene in small-town California. In this 2011 Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama, a successful Hollywood screenwriter forces her conservative family to face events they wish to forget. Timothy Bond will helm Syracuse Stage’s season finale.

Syracuse Stage producing artistic director Timothy Bond. Photo by Michael Davis.

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