Who better to discuss the art of superb style than the artistic directors themselves? So we asked James Bundy of the Great Lakes Theater Festival and Peter Hackett of the Cleveland Play House to annotate their respective seasons, explaining their rationale for choosing the plays, and, most importantly, offering a well-placed fashion tip or two.
Bundy, with a boyish buzz cut, has the aura of a New England prep school boy just out of knee pants. This is his second year as artistic director and will be the first season he has personally selected. He says his mission is "to steer the festival out of the museum to works embedded in American culture, plays that emphasize beauty of form and language."
Thunder Knocking on the Door (October 14-31) is Great Lakes' season opener. It's the pre-Broadway launching pad for this blues musical fantasia set in 1960s Alabama. "Master traveler Marvel Thunder has come down to challenge the twin children of the only musician who ever beat him in a "cutting contest,' a musical face-off on blues guitars that will decide everyone's fate," says Bundy, who first saw the work in Cincinnati. He says he was knocked out by its "celebratory exuberance," choosing it as a racial work "about love rather than hate." He suggests that audiences study the only known photo of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson and try to emulate his insouciant overalls by wearing denim.
The Wild Duck (January 27-February 13), Ibsen's exploration of the consequences of an explosive secret on a teenage girl, has been the bane of every lit major. In a new adaptation by Anthony Clarvoe commissioned by Bundy, the play is given a fresh spin by being set in present-day Cleveland. In addition, dozens of local celebrities will be doing walk-ons on a rotating basis. Bundy was inspired by his participation in the traveling company Cornerstone Theater, which used to cover the country, updating classics and setting them in the city in which it was playing. For Ibsen, one must always wear thoughtful, depressive colors: An Yves St. Laurent suit in a muted gray or green would be ideal.
Twelfth Night (March 16-April 2). When pondering what Shakespeare to present, Bundy's former cohort, director Daniel Fish of the Shakespeare Theater of Washington, suggested that Twelfth Night's blending of melancholy, sadness, romance, and farce would make it an ideal crowd-pleaser. This production will be set in the early twentieth century, and Bundy promises a haunting original score, lots of moonlight and pianos, and perhaps just a touch of Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night. To emphasize the motif of romantic twins, it is suggested that you and your theater companion try wearing identical N. Peel cashmere sweaters.
Travels With My Aunt (April 27-May 14). An adaptation of Graham Greene's romantic comic novel about eccentric Aunt Augusta, a sort of British Auntie Mame, who liberates her repressed nephew through outrageous adventures. This scintillating stage version by Giles Havergal is written to be performed by four veddy British-sounding male actors. Bundy, who is directing, says he chose it for its magnificent distillation of Greene's incisive high comedy. He goes so far as to call it "rip-roaring." It was a major success off Broadway and should be viewed in the finest Brooks Brothers tweeds (even in early May).
A Christmas Carol (December 1-26). Yes, again, for the eleventh time. Bundy swears that he is not keeping this show just as a cash cow. With its use of light and dark shadows, Gothic special effects, and Shakespearean bravado, Bundy claims former artistic director Gerald Freedman's adaptation of Dickens is the ideal "introduction to theater for any age," and he cannot resist the temptation of directing something that will be seen by approximately 22,000 impressionable, potential future Great Lakes Theater patrons. Must be experienced in jingle bell pins and reindeer sweaters.
Now on to the Play House. Beginning his fifth season as artistic director, Peter Hackett, in his wire-rimmed glasses, exudes the fervor of a Hawthorne Puritan. He has slowly triumphed in his double mission to expunge the damage inflicted by his megalomaniac predecessor and bring a Cleveland flavor back to the Play House through his highly successful playwrights' workshops and readings. Admittedly, he still has a long way to go in casting local actors in major roles. Hackett sees the artistic director's main role as "setting the vision." His proudest boast is, out of ten new plays this season, half will be world premieres.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo (September 21-October 24) begins the season on a commercial note. This play about a Jewish family in Atlanta in the late 1930s concerns assimilation and captures the flurry going on around the world premieres of the film Gone With the Wind. Compared by many critics to a vintage Warner Brothers romantic comedy, Hackett chose it "for its cultural assimilation theme." It's a surefire crowd pleaser to balance out some of the season's later, darker efforts. A play that requires the casual insouciance of polo shirts and Dockers.
Seascape by Edward Albee (November 2-28). Here the creator of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe temporarily abandons the angst of alienated families for a fanciful, surprisingly optimistic comedy about a vacationing couple and their beach encounters with a couple of loquacious lizards. Winning Albee his second Pulitzer Prize, it's been a play that obsessed Hackett since he saw the original Broadway production starring Deborah Kerr. He endorses it as "a romantic, cathartic, appealing work," Albee's Ah, Wilderness! When one sees Albees, one must always wear a plain Brooks Brothers vest and a navy blazer (preferably with gold buttons).
The Christmas play, a true gift for devotees of delicate Edwardian romanticism, is A Kiss for Cinderella (November 30-January 2), by Peter Pan's J.M. Barrie, which resets Cinderella in a London slum during World War I. As in The Wizard of Oz, characters reappear as whimsical fantasy figures in a slum Cinderella's ballroom dream sequence. This wistful antique, though a perennial Christmas play for more than twenty years in pre-World War II London, has gone unseen for generations. Hackett says the play was originally written by Barrie to deal with the grief over the death of one of the real "lost boys," and it seems even more poignant and wise with the patina of time. Wear your sweet little Alice-blue gown or gayest boutonniere.
A Dream Play by August Strindberg (January 11-February 6). Now we're in for some heavy sailing. An abstract drama in a new translation, this is the theatrical equivalent of Ulysses. This story of a goddess who ventures down to earth to see what it's like to be human, a specialty of Ingmar Bergman's, is admired by the intellectually endowed and feared by those addicted to plot and coherence. Hackett, who says this is his favorite twentieth-century work, hopes to appeal with this production to those avant-garde audiences who go for the works of Robert Wilson. Be sure to wear your best Pierre Cardin beret and bring your bongo drums.
Two Trains Running (February 8-March 12). This play is part of Wilson's decade-by-decade examination of black experiences in the twentieth century. Set in the '60s, it examines the lives of denizens of a Pittsburgh diner about to succumb to gentrification. Wilson is perhaps this generation's richest, most poetic playwright. His works all have the expansive texture and passion of nonmusical soap operas. Hackett has chosen it because he "loves the characters" and feels "what it has to say on urban redevelopment ties it firmly with the black community." Wilson's high drama calls for something equally dramatic, such as a bold turtleneck or a gardenia behind the ear.
A Small Family Business (March 4-April 9). Playwright Alan Ayckbourn is as popular in England as Neil Simon is in America, and like Simon, the specific nuances of his works have trouble rooting in foreign soil, yet Ayckbourn is a master of dark, farcical blight. Here he deals with a family furniture business where everyone turns corrupt. Play House Associate Director Ed Call advised Hackett "that a play about corrupt business ethics should appeal to all those Cleveland accountants, CPOs, and patrons of executive washrooms who like to play hide-and-seek with the IRS." A Giorgio Armani pinstripe would be most appropriate.
The Emancipation of Valet du Chambre (April 11-May 14) is Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson adapted to the stage by Associate Artist Murphy Guyer. Twain's satiric examination of slavery concerns a desperate slave woman who switches her newborn baby with the master's baby. Part murder mystery, part courtroom farce, it is one of Twain's most potent pieces of literary moonshine. Whether it will keep its kick on stage remains to be seen. Basically being done because Hackett has put full confidence in the choice of house playwright Guyer. For Twain it is always a good idea to wear a white seersucker suit and Panama hat, and carry a cigar.
Touch the Names (May 9-June 4). Ending the season on a solemn note, this theatrical montage was conceived by Randall Myler, who penned last season's wildly successful Love, Janis, and someone who has the audacity to call himself "Chic Street Man." This original musical is composed of letters and various artifacts left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The writers were allowed access to a warehouse in Maryland where everything left at the memorial has been stored. This work, in the style of Spoon River Anthology, is, according to Hackett, a thank-you note to every American who has ever served in a war. It would be most appropriate to wear khakis and green fatigues.
Also, the Next Stage Millennium Series will feature two new plays for one week each in the Studio One Theater: Eric Coble's The Final Descent of Edgar Allan Poe (October 26-31), a chilling meditation on the horrific afterlife of Poe, and The Infinite Regress of Human Vanity (May 16-21), by the ubiquitous Murphy Guyer, a screwball comedy about the inflated egos that make up playwriting festivals. Both are audacious new works, so perhaps a tutu and ballet slippers would be most appropriate.