The New Season: To be or not to be (truthful) proves question of the year at Writers’ Theatre
Eighth in a series of season previews: “Hamlet” launches the company’s 21st season, with Corneille’s “The Liar” waiting in the wings. Two Midwest premieres also are on tap. The season opens Sept. 4.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Words, words, words. Are they the stuff of truth or the fabric of prevarication? Writers’ Theatre will bookend its 2012-2013 season with both possibilities, swinging the spotlight from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his quest for veracity to Corneille’s feigning manipulator in “The Liar.”
In between, the Glencoe theater company’s 21st season also promises two Midwest premieres – John W. Lowell’s “The Letters” and David Greig’s “Yellow Moon,” both in the you-are-there intimacy of Writers’ second space at Books on Vernon.
Writers’ co-founder and artistic director Michael Halberstam, who will direct “Hamlet” and whose extensive background with the Bard includes seasons with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, wanted to offer the play as part of the Writers’ 20th year but couldn’t put the right creative mix together.
“I don’t think you should ever attempt these great classics unless you have title role firmly in your imagination and the right actor in mind,” says Halberstam. The actor he wanted to play the melancholy Dane — and got for this season — is Scott Parkinson, a veteran of the Chicago theater scene and a well-traveled Shakespearean.
Halberstam calls “Hamlet” “half of one whole play, the other part being ‘Lear.’ The two plays reflect the first and second halves of Shakespeare’s life. ‘Hamlet’ is from the somewhat romantic point of view of a younger playwright. In the end, Horatio tells the soldiers to bear Hamlet on his shoulders into the sunset.
“Lear expires over the corpse of his daughter, confronted by what he has wrought with his own egotism and foolishness. ‘Lear’ is the work of a more experienced, more cynical author. Both plays deal with the issues of our mortality. We don’t do mortality terribly well in this part of the world, and that’s Hamlet’s point: It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are, everybody’s going to die. The readiness is all.”
The 2012-13 season in brief:
- “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare (Sept. 4-Nov. 11). Young Prince Hamlet returns from school abroad to his home in Denmark where his father has recently died and his mother has quite suddenly married her late husband’s brother, Hamlet’s uncle. Both stunned and grief-stricken, Hamlet receives a still greater blow when the ghost of his father says he was murdered by his brother. So begins the distraught prince’s fretful investigation. “This is really the story of Hamlet coming to terms with his own mortality,” says Halberstam. “The scene in which he contemplates old Yorick’s skull, and reflects on the end that awaits us all, is Hamlet’s epiphany. At that point, he’s finally ready to take action. From that point, he is ready to die.”
- “The Letters” by John W. Lowell (Midwest premiere, Nov. 13-March 3, 2013): Set in 1930s Soviet Russia, the play spins out as a curiously freighted meeting between an administrator and the female employee he has summoned for a chat. What begins passively grows steadily more charged and significant as the two characters wade deeper into a mysterious game of cat and mouse. “This play was recommended to us 10 years ago,” says Halberstam, “but we always have such a backlog of unread scripts that we only recently got around to it. We were all captivated by the marvelously sustained tension and Lowell’s great sense of humor. As the power struggle unfolds, it develops into a psychological thriller.” Kimberly Senior makes her Writers’ directing debut.
- “Sweet Charity,” with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields (Jan. 22-March 31, 2013): In this 1966 musical, Charity Valentine is an eternally optimistic dancer-for-hire at a Times Square dance hall, confident her life’s going to get better even as she keeps repeating the same mistakes with guys. “I think musicals are right for our space,” says Halberstam, noting that this will be Writers’ fourth plunge into the genre. “It’s also a great challenge because with the audience so close, songs must lift gently out of the drama, naturally and effortlessly. ‘Sweet Charity’ is something of an existential musical, and Dorothy Fields’ sophisticated lyrics bring an almost feminist perspective. But it’s also a dance show and our audiences are going to see choreography on a significant scale for the first time.” Halberstam directs. Jessica Redish is the choreographer, Doug Peck the music director.
- “Yellow Moon” by David Greig (Midwest premiere, April 9-July 28, 2013): Subtitled “The Ballad of Leila and Lee,” Scottish playwright David Greig’s tale echoes of Bonnie and Clyde as two restless teenagers share a bottle in a cemetery at the start of what becomes a wild night on the lam. “David Greig is the most important playwright in Britain today, and ‘Yellow Moon’ is deliriously accessible,” says Halberstam. “The play makes extensive use of narrative address to the audience, and four actors play all the roles.” Writers’ associate artistic director Stuart Carden chose the work and will direct it. “When you’re handing out directing assignments, you want to be very sure the person you select is committed to the play. Stuart has a real passion for ‘Yellow Moon.’”
- “The Liar” by Pierre Corneille, translated from the French and adapted by David Ives (May 21-July 29, 2013): In this 17th century verse play, young Dorante has his eye and heart set on a girl called Clarice – only to discover that his father has already chosen a bride for him. It is in fact Clarice, though Dorante mistakenly believes that’s not the same girl he pines for. And so he begins to weave an elaborate web of lies to avoid marrying the very girl he actually desires. “If you really want a translation to reflect the popular vernacular of the original work, it’s only good for about 10 years,” says Halberstam. Chicago-born David Ives, he says, “has rethought ‘The Liar’ in a very American vernacular and captures its laughter, wit and character in brilliant rhymed couplets. We haven’t done a French verse comedy before. It’s a nice way to close the season – our spoonful of sugar for our audience, which is always with us for whatever adventure we lead them on.”
Both of Writers’ performance venues are located in the northern Chicago suburb of Glencoe, along Lake Michigan’s shore. Three of this season’s productions – “Hamlet,” “Sweet Charity” and “The Liar” — will be staged at the company’s larger venue, 325 Tudor Court. “The Letters” and “Yellow Moon” will be given in the smaller space at the rear of Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave. The theaters are also accessible via the Metra Union Pacific North line, Glencoe stop.
Writers’ Theatre was founded in 1992 “to explore productions in which the word on the page and the artists that bring the word to life hold primary importance.” As the company enters its third decade, plans are underway for a new theater building to be erected on the site of the present main stage on Tudor Court.
The new theater center is being designed by 2011 MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang and Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects. In July, the National Endowment for the Arts named Writers’ Theatre and the Village of Glencoe as joint recipients of an Our Town grant of $100,000 to support the design project.
- Details and ticket info for the complete season: Get it at WritersTheatre.org
- Writers’ announces architects for new theater building: Read it here
- Review of Writers’ 2011-12 production of “A Little Night Music”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Writers’ 2011-12 production of “Hesperia”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Writers’ 2011-12 production of “The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of Writers’ 2011-12 production of “The Real Thing”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” will open Writers’ 2012-13 season (Image courtesy of Writers’ Theatre) Descending: The cast assembles for the first rehearsal of “Hamlet,” with Scott Parkinson (wearing black shirt, center) in the title role. The play is directed by Michael Halberstam (front right). (Photo by Michael Brosilow) Director Michael Halberstam. Playwright John W. Lowell. Lyricist Dorothy Fields. Playwright David Greig. Playwright David Ives. Writers’ current main stage theater. Below: Carrie Coon and Sean Fortunato in a scene from Writers’ 2011 production of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” Kevin Gudahl and Kate Fry in “A Minister’s Wife” by Michael Halberstam after G.B. Shaw’s “Candida” — the 2009 musical production reopened at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2011. Scene from Writers’ 2010 production of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical “She Loves Me.” (Production photos by Michael Brosilow)