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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

Powerhouse Theater preview: a closer look at two bold new works at Vassarby Jay Blotcher

This summer, devotees of the American theatre need not spend their days and nights in Manhattan, dropping exorbitant fees on the shows currently installed along Broadway. A banquet of drama, comedy and musical offerings—featuring high-profile actors—awaits the obsessive theatergoer here in the Mid-Hudson Valley. For the 26th year, from June 25 to August 1, Vassar College in collaboration with New York Stage and Film, plays host to the Powerhouse Theater season, an immense series of readings, new plays in development and classical pieces in campus theaters and al fresco.

This year’s schedule showcases 20 major premieres, including new works by John Patrick Shanley (Pirate), Eve Ensler (I Am An Emotional Creature), and the team behind the Spring Awakening, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (Umbrage). The oddest prospect is a reworking of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (July 29-August 1) with a new book by Peter Parnell (The Cider House Rules) and directed by Michael Mayer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening, Side Man).

Powerhouse also offers two reading festivals and outdoor performances by the Powerhouse Apprentice Company, including Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, and a workshop of Walter Jones’ 1940s Radio Hour, directed by New York Stage and Film cofounder, actor Mark Linn-Baker.

Two Powerhouse productions arrive at Vassar with major buzz, by dint of their high-profile directors: the drama We Are Here is helmed by Sheryl Kaller, Tony-nominated for the hit Next Fall, currently vying for a best play Tony. The musical Bonfire Night is directed by Obie-Award-winning young turk Alex Timbers.

In separate interviews, the directors and playwrights of both shows explained the fluid collaboration that brought these fledgling shows to Powerhouse 2010.

A Functional Family: We Are Here
Mainstage, Powerhouse Theater | June 29-July 11

When she embarked upon writing what became We Are Here, Tracy Thorne had only a sense of what she hoped to avoid.

“I didn’t want to write a dysfunctional family play,” she said. But, the Southern-born, Harlem-based actor and playwright realized that happy people generate little dramatic tension. So she shifted gears, inventing “a very happy, functioning family with plenty of trouble.”

The drama, which pivots on the death of a child, examines how people survive a tragedy that would tear them apart. The horror, however, is leavened with humor. While casting about for a plot dynamic that reflected the family’s resilience, Thorne happened to attend a Cole Porter concert at Lincoln Center. Before the show began, she observed spouses bicker in the audience. But when the witty lyrics and sprightly music began, tensions were quickly defused. Thorne decided, “My people could sing to one another.” As in Dennis Potter’s celebrated The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven, Thorne’s people croon standards when mere words cannot convey bitter emotion. As the matriarch in We Are Here explains, “This is how we define ourselves when we can’t stand the sight of one another; this is what we do.”

Director Sheryl Kaller’s resume includes work with the maverick Naked Angels theatre company of Manhattan as well as the Powerhouse musical productions Adrift in Macao and Dangerous Beauty. After Next Fall moved from a 96-seat off-Broadway house to Broadway and then received Tony nods, she vowed to take chances with her next project. New York Stage and Film brokered her partnership with Thorne and the connection was immediate. Kaller calls Thorne’s depiction of a three-generation family in crisis “one of the most beautiful plays I’ve ever read. We Are Here speaks to me as a mother and it speaks to me as a humanitarian.”

Tracy Thorne has worked with theatre giants such as Matthew Warchus, Anna Deavere Smith and Tony Kushner. That tutelage, however, did not spare her some youthful excesses in her previous works, which remain unproduced.

“The one-acts are the whimsies that they are,” she said. “The earlier plays are filled with language and filled with whacky stuff.” If her shows were couture, Thorne added, the early plays would be “crazy, crackpot Dolce&Gabbana on the runway” while We Are Here suggests a “black Calvin Klein sheath.”

Entourage, 1605: Bonfire Night
Martel Theatre | July 16-18

A dramatics teacher once told Justin Levine, “Don’t make theatre for somebody else; make theatre that’s interesting to you.” The librettist-composer heeded that counsel, and the result, after five years of development, is a musical workshop of Bonfire Night at Powerhouse.

A 16th century plot by British rebels to blow up Parliament seems unlikely material for a musical. But in the saga of Guy Fawkes—whose failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 inspired an annual street party still celebrated in Great Britain—Levine saw parallels to today’s headlines.

“The thing that captivated me was this whole idea of an early case of a suicide bomber attempt,” Levine, 24, said, who began this project as a straight drama in dramaturgy class at New York University. However, Levine’s girlfriend saw the potential for a musical in the material. He agreed and wrote a 16-song score, combining rock and period music.

Levine’s conceit of combining historic events with contemporary music and creating a modern mash-up drew the attention of his friend Alex Timbers. The artistic director of Les Frères Corbusier, Timber has monted several productions showcasing historic revisionism and ironic anachronisms.

“Taking historical events and reexamining them anew in a kind of fun, contemporary way that can reveal contemporary issues,” Timbers said, “it’s exciting to me.”

Levine also had faith in the alliance; he has just appeared in writer-director Timbers’s Public Theatre concert version of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, a brash, rock ‘n’ roll imagining of the life and times of our seventh president, limned through our modern perspectives on politics and fame. (The production just won Timbers a 2010 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical.) Timbers’s previous “devised pieces” included deconstructions of Depression-era president Herbert Hoover, Manhattan developer Robert Moses and the Church of Scientology. The audacious inventiveness and unapologetic intellectualism of his body of work (think Tony Kushner) has established Timbers, 32, as a wunderkind of American theatre. (An inveterate multi-tasker, Timbers is also working on a Peter Pan show for Disney Theatricals and a New York transfer for The Pee-wee Herman Show, recently staged in Los Angeles.)

Despite his intense schedule, Timbers insisted on directing Bonfire Night. He called Levine “one of the most gifted writer-composers that I’ve ever met and the fact that he’s so young and has just such great promise is really exciting. I would be stupid not to try to jump on that wagon.”

The duo wants Bonfire Night performed by an all-male cast, in order to suggest parallels to TV’s Entourage, Timbers said. “It’s about fraternity and loyalty and the sacrifices you’ll make. Having an all-male cast will amplify that in an exciting way.” Ultimately, the men emerge as both political dissidents and backstabbing power brokers.

Levine credits Timbers for guiding him in reshaping Bonfire Night for Powerhouse. “Alex just has this ability to bring edge to a piece of theater where there’s a lot of shock value, but somehow it’s the type that just makes you continue watching.”

“You’re dealing with a dead-serious subject matter,” Timbers said. “Urban terrorism and … religious belief and what you will and won’t die for. And yet it rubs up against a really funny, broad humor.”

Levine welcomes a commercial hit with Bonfire Night. But as a young idealist, he would settle happily for mere audience provocation. He hopes Powerhouse audiences will recognize similarities between King James’ England and Barack Obama’s America.

“At this point in my life,” he said, “I’m really interested in theatre that brings up questions and not necessarily answers.”



For a complete schedule of the Powerhouse season, visit powerhouse.vassar.edu or call the box office at 845.437.5907.



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