After a season of almost unrelenting darkness, from the bleakness of Beckett's Texts for Nothing to the Holocaust-era Race and I Will Bear Witness to the current operatic adaptation of Kafka's nightmarish In the Penal Colony, Off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company (CSC) may just lighten up a bit in the season to come. Though it's too early to confirm any part of CSC's upcoming schedule (which will be decided in mid-August), spokespersons at the Publicity Office did confirm that the company is considering four productions that were listed in a brochure sent to current and potential subscribers. Among the candidates: adaptations of a classic horror-thriller, a wild tragi comedy and an expressionistic farce.
The biggest name in the mix is writer-actor-comedian Steve Martin, who is adapting Carl Sternheim's edgy, door-slamming farce The Underpants. Martin, who made it big as a comedian with the album "Let's Get Small" and has been a movie star since "The Jerk" (followed by such pics as "The Man with Two Brains," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "Father of the Bride" and "Pennies From Heaven") made theatrical waves in the 1990s with his comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, some one acts. The past couple of years have seen him return to Hollywood and concentrate on films, his art collection and numerous comic essays for the New Yorker, as well as a novella, "Shopgirl."
Playwright Sternheim was born in 1878 in Leipzig. After studying philosophy he co-founded "Hyperion" literary magazine and went on to write such plays as The Cassette and The Snob. After encountering moral outrage over some of his writing, Sternheim moved to Brussels and lived there until his death in 1942.
Though Martin's adaptation of Sternheim's best-known comedy is titled "The Underpants," more delicate translations have called it "Knickers" and "The Trousers." The play tells of a man who's mortally embarrassed when his wife's undies fall down during the procession of the King. Two gentlemen notice her predicament — and become immediately smitten with her. CSC artistic director Barry Edelstein would direct The Underpants should these BVDs fly at CSC.
Moving from private parts to severed parts, Neal Bell has adapted Mary Shelley's horror classic, "Frankenstein," into Monster. Rent director Michael Greif would stage this world premiere adaptation of a scientist who creates a human monstrosity and then can't control its actions. In a quieter vein, director Anne Bogart is busy adapting the writings of Virginia Woolf into Room, with Bogart's SITI Company working on the piece at CSC. Ellen Lauren would star in the piece, no doubt focusing on "A Room of One's Own," which has already served as a solo vehicle for Eileen Atkins. Bogart's other projects have included bobrauschenbergamerica by Charles L. Mee, staged at this-past season's Humana Festival in Louisville, KY.
And speaking of Mee, his Humana hit the previous year, Big Love, may also come to CSC. Les Waters would stage this reinterpretation of Aeschylus' The Suppliant Women performed on a wrestling mat. In this ancient tale, fifty women are engaged to fifty brothers without their consent. They run away to Italy, but when finally tracked down by the grooms, each vows to give a wedding night their husbands will never forget.
As for CSC's current season, In the Penal Colony, a new opera theatre piece written by Rudolph Wurlitzer, composed by Philip Glass ("The Photographer," Einstein on the Beach) and directed by the avant-garde's JoAnne Akalaitis, opens June 14 for a run through July 14. Performances began June 7. Tony Boutte, Sterling K. Brown, John Duykers, Jesse J. Perez, Eugene Perry, Herbert Perry and Steven Rishard star, with the Balanescu Quartet providing musical accompaniment.
Designing the show are John Conklin (set), Wrong Mountain's Jennifer Tipton (lighting) and Dominic Kramers with Jane Shaw (sound). Obie winner Alan Johnson, who has conducted for Glass as well as Polly Pen, Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel, will conduct and musical direct.
Penal Colony premiered at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre in September 2000, followed by a co-produced run at Chicago's Court Theatre.
Franz Kakfa's story is set in an unnamed penal colony where a man has been sent to witness an execution by a fearsome machine of death. The colony's head officer can't imagine a world without his beloved killer, which he considers the "work of a lifetime." Glass and Akalaitis have expanded the piece to include issues of obsession, transcendence, transfiguration and change.
In the Penal Colony was written by Glass and librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer as a theatre piece for two singers, three actors and a string quartet. An icon of the minimalist school of composing, Glass first began writing for the Mabou Mines, which he co-founded. From that beginning, he created operas (Hydrogen Jukebox) and film scores ("Kundun") and performs regularly as pianist with his Philip Glass Ensemble. His "Symphony No. 5," a treatment of spiritual traditions through the ages, opens the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in October.
Also a co-founder of Mabou Mines, Akalaitis served as the company's co artistic director. Some of her well-known productions include Tis a Pity She's a Whore at Chicago's Goodman, Green Card at the Mark Taper Forum, In the Summer House for Lincoln Center Theatre, The Iphigenia Cycle and The Trojan Women, which have helped her win five Obie Awards, a Drama Desk Award, the NEA Award for Sustained Artistic Achievement and a short-lived artistic directorship of the New York Shakespeare Festival.
For tickets and information on shows at CSC, 136 East 13th Street, call (212) 677-4210 or check out their website, www.classicstage.org.
— By David Lefkowitz