COMMUNITY THEATER PREVIEW Playwrights, area debuts mark upcoming season
Had enough of politics? Two community theater groups are betting you haven't.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
YOUNGSTOWN -- Playwrights will be more prominent than usual when the curtain goes up on a new community theater season in the area.
Fall will also herald a period of new-to-the-area works and fresh approaches to shows with familiar titles and themes.
Playwright John Henry Redwood will be in Youngstown for opening night of his play, "The Old Settler," in November at Oakland Center for the Arts.
Alexandra Vansuch, the Oakland's artistic director, had seen a production of one of Redwood's plays, "A Sunbeam," in Pittsburgh years ago. She corresponded with him for a while before losing track of him.
"The Old Settler" is the reason Vansuch looked up Redwood again, through the latter's agent. It's a story about two aging, single sisters in Harlem during World War II and the male tenant whose presence prompts them to be honest about their strained relationship.
"He's a real community kind of guy," Vansuch said of Redwood. "He's the kind of person you would like to have as a friend. He makes you feel that way ... His writing is very heartfelt."
Redwood is also an actor who has appeared on Broadway, in regional theater and in movies such as "Boys and Girls," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Porky's."
As a playwright, Redwood has received several awards, including one from American Theatre Critics society.
Redwood will be a guest of the Oakland and Youngstown State University College of Fine and Performing Arts, where a colloquium, "Cultural Collisions: Intersections of Race, Class and Gender in the Arts," is being offered this fall. Redwood will be a lecturer and classroom visitor, Vansuch said.
At least two other local playwrights will be accessible as productions of their works unfold. Jean Kelty has contributed two of the six plays in the season of Victorian Players, which she founded. "The Unfinished Statement," concerning Japanese drama and arts as seen from a Westerner's perspective, is scheduled for January. "Charles Dickens and the Ghosts of Londontown," which is set in Victorian England, is coming next May.
Patricia Fagan, who coordinates Youngstown Playhouse Youth Theatre activities, has written a version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" that will be performed next March by Kent State University Trumbull Campus Theatre in Warren. Kelty and Fagan have each written many plays for local theater.
The theme at Oakland Center for the Arts is "A Season of New American Plays." Five of the six plays were initially produced in only the last five years and are new to the area. Besides "The Old Settler," there's "Over the River and Through the Woods," in which an Italian-American man's loving grandparents won't let him move cross-country without putting up a fight; "The Laramie Project," which was written after gay college student Matthew Sheppard was the victim of a deadly hate crime; and the rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," starring a German singer whose sex-change operation wasn't a success.
"We're doing our best to offer a little bit of something for everyone," Vansuch said. It's not an easy task: "New plays are hard to sell. People don't want to see the untried; they want to see a title. We have a reputation for doing new stuff."
The Oakland and Youngstown Playhouse have at least one thing in common this season. Each has chosen a play about politics. The Oakland will produce "Belmont Avenue Social Club," Bruce Graham's tale about Bronx, N.Y., politics at work after a corrupt councilman dies.
The Playhouse's season begins Friday with "Fiorello!", a political spoof that's based on the true-to-life story of frank-talking Fiorello LaGuardia. His career took him from language interpreter at Ellis Island to the office of Mayor of New York after he defeated the crooked Tammany Hall political machine. (Yes, the airport is named for him.)
Asked if residents of the Mahoning Valley and surrounding areas have been overwhelmed lately with discussions of politics, "They haven't had enough politics with laughs. Politics with tears, perhaps," said Bob Vargo, the Playhouse's managing director.
"Fiorello!" was written by the same men who produced a theater classic, "Fiddler on the Roof."
Vargo expects it to be a light evening of satire and catchy lyrics, Vargo said. Musical director Mike Moritz is assembling a large pit orchestra, "so it will have a lush sound," he said. The timing is right, with the November elections looming.
"Fiorello!" hasn't been seen here since the 1950s, probably when B'nai Brith sponsored a Broadway series downtown at the Palace Theatre, Vargo noted.
It's also been about 25 years since local audiences have taken in the musical "Can Can," which the Playhouse will offer next April.
"I think 'Can Can' will be a high water mark," Vargo said. "There's a big following for [composer] Cole Porter and that show. A lot of people will rediscover it."
Vargo is also reworking the annual production of "A Christmas Carol." It will be a new version with new music and a darker feel. "I call it 'Sweeney Todd' meets 'Christmas Carol'," he said.
All Playhouse productions will run for three weekends this year, except "A Christmas Carol," which will last for five weekends, Vargo added.