Though new Manhattan theatre companies are arguably formed every week, it's rare that one begins life with its own, newly renovated theatre, a full fledged New York Times ad campaign and an annual working budget of $750,000. Nor do they hold press conferences adorned by more food and drink than has ever likely been proffered to reporters by Lincoln Center Theater, Manhattan Theatre Club and the Roundabout Theatre Company combined. But such are the happy circumstance of the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre (MET), which will emerge seemingly out of nowhere to stage its first production, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, on Feb. 21.
The Idiot, adapted and directed by David Fishelson, was first mounted at Downtown Manhattan's venerable Jean Cocteau Rep in 1993. The Jean Cocteau was Fishelson's home for nearly a decade, first as managing director (1989-92), then associate artistic director (1992-94) and finally resident director (1994-97). Fishelson is MET's artistic director, and the company owes its life to a five-year fundraising drive he began around the time he left the Cocteau.
Such assiduous monetary preparation would explain MET's initial wealth. But what about the ready playing space? According to Fishelson, he and his colleagues were prepared to live an itinerant artistic life for the first couple seasons, staging a show here, a show there. Months of searching for a workable, affordable space had turned up nothing. Then someone noticed a "for rent" sign in the window of 55 Mercer Street in Soho — the former home of Synchronicity Space. The once-active, 99-seat black box had been sitting idle for some time. Fishelson saw his opportunity.
Thanks to a half-million-dollar renovation, the theatre has been transformed into a 140-seat house, with carpeting and red-cushioned seats. Those who remember Synchronicity Space will remember the deep stage and high ceilings but will be thankful that the infamously loud air conditioning system has been supplanted by a purring, efficient unit. Also improved are the lobby and box office. And actors and designers enjoy roomy dressing rooms and rehearsal space rarely seen below 14th Street.
Now, all Fishelson and company have to do is come up with some plays to put in this impressive facility. Until the ensemble begins life in earnest in the fall with a full, three-play season, Fishelson has turned to one of his past triumphs for an inaugural offering. The Idiot did well at Jean Cocteau, but the author thinks the work never quite won the audience it deserves. The new mounting will boast a set design by Richard Hoover, the Tony Award-winning artist behind Broadway's Not About Nightingales. Featured in the large, 15-member cast are John Lenartz as Myshkin, Roxanna Hope, Triney Sandoval and Abigail Lopez. The Idiot is fully in keeping with MET's mission, which is to stage theatrical adaptations of classic novels and other works of literature. The idea has been tried before, and literary adaptations are a staple of Chicago theatre, but Fishelson noted that there is not currently a Manhattan troupe dedicated to the form. "We're looking simply to create a kind of theatre that puts the accent on entertainment, strong storytelling, strength-of theme and great characters," Fishelson said in a statement.
The 2001-02 season may feature a new work by Simon Burke, who has adapted several novels for television. Other possibilities include plays based on Thomas Mann, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy.
Tickets for The Idiot are $40. For more information, call (212) 239 6200.
— By Robert Simonson