The New Season: Modern retelling of Iphigenia legend will raise the curtain for Next Theatre
Fifth in a series of season previews: 2012-13 also includes U.S. premiere of “Everything is Illuminated,” a young man’s search for the woman who saved his grandfather. Season opens Sept. 6.
By Nancy Malitz
The Chicago theater community has become good at Really Old Tales Retold, especially the ancient Greek myths and legends that form Western culture’s beating heart. Evanston’s Next Theatre opens its 2012-13 season in September with Charles Mee’s “Iphigenia 2.0,” based on the legend of a king who plans to sacrifice his daughter so the gods will allow his fleet of war ships to set sail for Troy.
Thus Next adds one more dish to Chicago’s smorgasbord of Greek re-tellings. Recently the city has seen Steppenwolf’s “Penelope,” Enda Walsh’s look at the vulture-like suitors pestering Odysseus’ wife; Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s “An Iliad” at the Court, a modern Homer’s distillation of the Trojan War story; Sean Graney’s “Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses” at The Hypocrites, which blitzes through Oedipus, Antigone, Electra et al. with music of Springsteen. And just this summer, Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey,” at Victory Gardens — the hero’s tragedy as Chicano saga in gangland L.A.
Euripides’ late 5th-century B.C. “Iphigenia in Aulis” drips with irony as it describes the Trojan War at its onset, when the plot is hatched to kill one king’s daughter (Iphigenia) in order to rescue another king’s wife (the fabled Helen). More than 2,400 years later, Mee’s 2.0 mash-up portrays princess Iphigenia as a clueless teen who rushes to greet her father with: “Whoa. Daddy!”
- “Iphigenia 2.0,” by Charles Mee (Sept. 6 – Oct. 14): Next’s artistic director, Jennifer Avery, says Mee uses Euripides “as a base text, and then he sort of collages all these different materials on top of it — found texts, interviews with soldiers and all sorts of pop cultural references.” She says the director, Lookingglass Theatre’s David Kersnar, “keeps calling it ‘CNN meets TMZ.‘ He’s going to bring a lot of Lookingglass-style physical theater to it, such as tumbling and dancing, which will be new for Next.”
- “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” by Julie Marie Myatt (Midwest premiere, Nov. 15 – Dec. 23): Jessica Thebus was wowed by this play when she directed it in 2008 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and then took it to Washington D.C., according to Avery. The story concerns a Marine sergeant — and mother of two — who returns from Iraq without the body or mind she left with. “Jessica (who is a Steppenwolf artistic associate) told me she wanted Chicago to see it,” says Avery. “The themes are dark but the play itself is very quirky, surprisingly funny. “ The playwright’s father, a Marine, did two tours in Vietnam and stayed in the military, so Myatt grew up knowing the lingo and mindset.
- “Everything is Illuminated,” adapted by Simon Block from the novel of Jonathan Safran Foer (U.S. premiere, Feb. 21 – March 31, 2013): Some may know this story from the film adaptation created by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood as a young Jewish American writer determined to track down the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather from extermination. But playwright Simon Block’s source was Foer’s brilliant 2002 novel, an intertwining of separate narratives including that of Alex, the Ukrainian tour guide who assists in the quest. Alex is a hilarious malapropist who spends way too much unsupervised time with a thesaurus, and he sets the play’s early comic tone, which then takes a shocking turn: “It will catch the audience off guard,” says Avery. “You think this is one person’s story, and it ends up being another person’s story.”
- “The Exonerated,” by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen (April 19-May 5, 2013): Marking a new collaboration with Northwestern University in partnership with the Center on Wrongful Convictions, students will work with Next to offer this well-known 2002 agenda-play about six actual prisoners who spent years on Death Row for crimes they did not commit. Illinois has a historical connection with the work: Former governor George Ryan, considering whether to commute the sentences of more than 140 Illinois Death Row inmates, arranged for a performance before lawmakers, religious leaders and attendees at the 2002 National Gathering of the Death Row Exonerated. Avery says director Cat Miller intends to avoid the usual concert-style staged readings of the prisoners’ testimony in favor of ”a more full-fledged production” that gets beyond simple good and evil: “She wants to express how complicated this all is, and how these things can happen in our society.”
Next Theatre Company is located at 927 Noyes Street in the rambling Noyes Cultural Center, home to the City of Evanston Cultural Arts Division, Piven Theatre Workshop and several art galleries. The CTA’s Purple Line stops at Noyes.
2012-13 marks the third season Avery has assembled for Next, although she’s been in the company’s top spot for only two years. She first came onboard as an artistic associate under former artistic director Jason Loewith, who tripled Next’s audience base and boosted its national reputation before leaving to run D.C.’s National New Play Network.
Avery was thrust into the interim artistic director post in May 2010, when Loewith’s successor abruptly departed. She re-drew the 2010-11 season immediately and got the permanent nod a few months later.
“I went right from being an actor to becoming artistic director, although I had done plenty of arts administration elsewhere,” says Avery, who was long a company member at Strawdog Theatre. “I wear a lot of hats at Next, but ultimately my biggest job is to select the season and maintain the company’s mission and values.”
Next’s mission, stated on its website, is to produce “socially provocative, artistically adventurous work.” Its vision is that “theater can promote awareness and provoke change with more power than any other medium of expression.”
Of past show highlights, Avery picks the 2000 world premiere of ”Among the Thugs,”immediately repeated at Goodman Theatre, about the rampant hooliganism of British soccer fans. Playwright Tom Szentgyorgyi (now a successful TV series producer adapted the story from a book by Bill Buford, and Next’s production put the audience in the midst of highly charged fan surges.
“And ‘The Adding Machine’ was a show that put Next on the national radar for sure,” Avery says. The 2007 musical was written by Joshua Schmidt with Loewith — an adaptation of a caustic 1923 play by Elmer Rice about Mr. Zero, an office-worker who learns his company’s replacing him with a machine. The musical went to off-Broadway in 2008 and won Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk awards.
Photo captions and credits: Homepage and top: Rebecca Buller is cast in the title role of “Iphigenia 2.0″ at Next Theatre to open the 2012-13 season. (Photo by Manny Ortiz) Descending: A page from playwright Charles Mee’s website. Charles Mee. Julie Marie Myatt. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. “The Exonerated” collaborators Jessica blank and Eric Jensen. Noyes Cultural Center. Next Theatre artistic director Jennifer Avery. “Among the Thugs” production shot. (Goodman Theatre) Below: Aaron Todd Douglas as Agamemnon and Rebecca Buller as Iphigenia (Photo by Manny Ortiz) Joel Hatch and Amy Warren in the 2007 Next Theatre production of “The Adding Machine.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)