Sunday, June 03, 2001

The Arts


Playwrights await works' premieres

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        I usually celebrate the Tony Awards by using this day's column to distribute the Jackie Awards for local outstanding achievement in theater.

        That wasn't a problem until last year, when Cincinnati had a serious summer season and a lot of wonderful work went unremarked. This year, the Jackies move to the final Sunday in August to applaud 12 months' of work.

        Today we'll celebrate two local playwrights who have new plays opening this month.

        (Tonight applaud The Producers and Proof.)
       

"Age of Discovery'

        Joe McDonough is probably best known locally for his holiday musicals (written with David Kisor) for Ensemble Theatre. Their partnership will extend to two works for The Children's Theatre next season.

        As it happens, Mr. McDonough writes wonderfully out-there farces for grown-up audiences. Last year, alert local audiences had one night to catch a sneak preview of The Age of Discovery in a staged reading by Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative.

        Age has since gone on to an out-of-town premiere at Georgia Rep and has garnered lots of interest nationally, including a July 23 reading by the Abingdon Theatre Company in Manhattan.

        A Chance of Lightning, a wild contemporary take on Prometheus Bound set in Cincinnati gets the final slot in Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's current season. The satire, opening a three-week run Thursday was commissioned by the festival.

        “I was told I could write whatever I wanted, as long as it was for the actors in the company,” Mr. McDonough said as we huddled in our coats enjoying spring and an outdoor table at Mullane's, just next door to the theater.

        What he wanted to write was a fast-moving satire about a new virus and all the people who want it. “I kind of go through stages,” Mr. McDonough says. “I wrote three plays about politics, then with Age I got on this science thing.

        “Here the stakes are a little higher. It weaves in some larger issues, like how a scientist's work affects society as a whole.

        “I want to be a thinking person's playwright, but I also want to be entertaining,” Mr. McDonough says. “It won't matter if you don't know Aeschylus.”

        The commission is part of the festival's studio series, which will continue later this summer with the debut of Women's Theatre Initiative and One Flea Spare.

"Track & Field'

       

        Prolific Kevin Barry has been cranking out a couple of scripts a year as unofficial in-house playwright for Over-the-Rhine's Know Theatre Tribe since December 1999, when the partnership began with American Standard.

        Last summer's In Rebel Country is also due for a reading, date to be determined.

        Mr. Barry, jacketless and dismissing the crisp breeze, said upcoming comedy Track & Field, about a middle-aged married professor attracted to a young woman athlete (opening June 15 at Gabriel's Corner) will probably be the last Know script for a while.

        “Know's mission is diversity, and I think they should develop more ethnic writers,” middle-aged white guy Mr. Barry says. “Wouldn't it be great to see a play by an African-American who lives here?”

        “I'm not sure I've ever seen such a thing,” Mr. McDonough, a closing-in-on-middle-age white guy ventures.

        Both debuting plays were written for specific theaters, no longer a common occurrence.

        Among the advantages for Mr. McDonough were the festival's strong acting company.Roles in Lightning are custom fit to what company members portray well.

        “Brian (Isaac Phillips) carries a lot of the comedy. He's had such an amazing season, he has talent to burn,” Mr. McDonough says. Mr. Phillips' character is “dumb and vain,” sounding not too far removed from his impressive comic turn in Lovers and Executioners this spring.

        Know, still an upstart company with about one-tenth the budget of Cincinnati Shakespeare, always faces casting and production challenges.

        Mr. Barry says, “It's great to be taken on blind faith, to know that if I write something they'll do it.” Very aware of Know's strengths, Mr. Barry plays to them with a light summer entertainment.

        He notes that Track & Field is “tailored for the company and the space, and it's limitations, both technical and in its size.”

        Fresh from an Ohio playwrights summit conference in Columbus, “marketing"' has become a big word in both their vocabularies as they try to make their names and work known in the national play marketplace.

Taking risks

       

        Most immediately, their thoughts are on this month's openings.

        They're both hoping for audiences but agree that new work, even comedy, is risky.

        “People like what's familiar,” Mr. Barry says, sighing. “You can't even say that people go to movies they know nothing about, because there's such a relationship between the movie industry and the media.

        “By the time E!, Entertainment Tonight and the talk shows are done, you've seen the movie before it opens.”

        The ever-optimistic Mr. McDonough ponders, “If we could even get 10 percent of the people who live here to take a chance ... We have, what? A population of 1.7 million? If we had 100,000 going to theater regularly we'd be happy.”

        Make them happy.

        • A Chance of Lightning, June 7-24 at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St. Tickets $18, $13 students and seniors. Call 381-2273.

        • Track & Field plays June 15-30 at Gabriel's Corner, Sycamore at Liberty in Over-the-Rhine. Tickets $10. Call 871-1429.

        "Dracula' adaptation: “Yippee!” says Richard Oberacker, CCM class of '93.

        A musical adaptation of Dracula by Mr. Oberacker (score) and fellow grad Michael Lazar (co-scripter and co-lyricist) has been announced for next season, the first original musical for the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music stage. It's what Mr. Oberacker hopes is the beginning of a tradition of new works for the musical theater department.

        “It's a great honor,” he says.

        Dracula has turned into Mina's story during its eight years in development, through a series of readings and workshops.

        “The theme is sexual awakening, what it meant to be a woman in Victorian England on the cusp of the 20th century,” Mr. Oberacker says.

        He's hard, maybe even frantically, at work on his latest project with Mr. Lazar.

        They pitched an idea about a Jewish kid in 1963 who writes gospel music and gets involved with the civil rights movement to SFX Theatricals (which owns the local Broadway Series, among a lot of other things.)

        SFX reps liked the sound of it and told them to continue. But Mr. Oberacker spends a lot of time on the road as music director for Cirque du Soleil's touring show Dralion. The show's 10-week stay in New York looked like a window of opportunity, and he's now working on orchestrations with another CCM grad, David Krepple (class of '92).

        The Gospel According to Fishman had a reading on Friday for the SFX team.

        He and Dralion head for Chicago in late June but Mr. Oberacker will probably have to make a quick trip back to New York in early July for another reading scheduled for potential investors.
       Contact Jackie Demaline by phone: 768-8530; fax: 768-8330; e-mail: jdemaline@yahoo.com.
       

       



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