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Season 33: Perseverance kicks off first play Friday

Posted: September 22, 2011 - 12:02am
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From left, Aram Aghazarian, Roblin Gray Davis and Jed Hancock-Brainerd rehearse for "The 39 Steps" at Perseverance.   Photos by Akiko Nishijima Rotch
Photos by Akiko Nishijima Rotch
From left, Aram Aghazarian, Roblin Gray Davis and Jed Hancock-Brainerd rehearse for "The 39 Steps" at Perseverance.

Dreams pursued, dreams deferred, dreams denied, dreams realized – all are present in Perseverance Theatre’s 33rd season, a selection of five plays that range from an 1800s classic to a brand new work.

Perseverance’s Executive Artistic Director Art Rotch said this theme figures in each of the five plays, though in very different ways.

“I think (the common theme) is chasing dreams, whether you know that’s what you’re doing or not,” he said.

Finding a common thread is an interesting exercise, but one that often happens after the plays have already been selected for the season, he said.

“Once you fall in love with five plays and start working on them you realize why,” he said. “And I think that’s part of what it is, is going after something.”

The works Perseverance will offer Juneau audiences this season represent a range of genres: a classic American play (“A Raisin in the Sun”), an Alaska debut by an emerging writer (“Animals Out of Paper”), a world premiere musical (“Bigfoot and Other Lost Souls”), and two famous stories adapted from other art forms (Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”).

“The 39 Steps” opens Friday, marking the official beginning to the season. But Season 33 really began a long time ago, with the selection of the plays and the creation of an artistic team, a long and involved process that takes many factors into consideration, from the availability of key players, to overarching thematic elements, such as how the stories might relate to an Alaskan audience.

“There’s a certain amount of black magic and voodoo,” Rotch said with a laugh.

In selecting both the plays and the team, the theater looks first to the strengths of its own company, and then draws on professionals from the rest of the state and country. This frequently involves mixing out-of-town professionals with locals in a process not unlike a blind date.

“For directors that are coming from out of town, it’s a little bit of match-making. It’s like trying to match people up for a six-week long date — they’d better fall in love with each other,” Rotch said.

Making the match-making easier is the fact that the theater community nationwide is one based on personal relationships and name recognition – not unlike the community of Alaska, said the theater’s Director of Education Shona Strauser. Most professionals, if not personally known to people at Perseverance, have common connections with people in Juneau.

“There’s only one degree of separation,” Rotch said.

The theater works to involve outside artists every season, for the benefit of the audience and for the benefit of its company members, who often gain new skills or new perspectives.

Strengthening the connections between theater artists, statewide and nationally, is one of the reasons the company has decided to stretch its productions to include Anchorage audiences (see story at right).

And it’s a goal that directly benefits Juneau audiences. This season’s talent includes not only local dynamos, such as Ryan Conarro and Flordelino Lagundino, but also national sensations, such as playwright Rajiv Joseph and composer Mark Hollmann.

Put that mix together with a selection of plays that have been carefully hand-picked for Alaskan audiences, and you end up with theater you wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else.

Here’s a look at what’s in store for Juneau audiences this season.

The 39 Steps, directed by Bostin Christopher, Sept. 23 – Oct. 16

Season opener “The 39 Steps” was selected to lead the way in part for its lighthearted feel; Juneau audiences are especially in need of a good belly laugh in the fall, said Strauser.

“Every year we say, ‘How do we open the season?’ And this one was kind of a no-brainer,” she said. “It’s really funny.”

The play is based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic film, which was originally based on a book by John Buchan. On stage the more than 100 characters from the film are portrayed by only four actors, in fast-moving piece of comedic theater that is part spoof, part homage. (Hitchcock geeks will enjoy the script’s many Hitchcock references.)

“Play” is an especially apt word for this production; the action includes lots of physical humor, and the four actors who make up the cast have been trained to use their bodies as well as their minds.

“If you can walk like a cow it’s kind of handy in this show,” Rotch said.

The team includes Juneau’s Roblin Gray Davis and his three colleagues, Aram Aghazarian, Jed Hancock-Brainerd and Rebecca Noon. All four studied at the same school in London where the playwright-actors came up with the script.

“They really get what these guys wrote, it’s in their bones, and that’s really paying off,” Rotch said. “They’re just very, very good at it. And very, very funny. It’s cool to see what you can do with your body as an actor when you go that deep into it.”

In selecting a director, the theater decided to go with someone who could work well with actors who were used to directing themselves. Bostin Christopher was not only a director who used to act, he was also someone Davis knew and who had experience with Perseverance.

“He’s got a strong background in making theater,” Rotch said.

Christopher, a third-generation Alaskan, worked with the theater 20 years ago and, now based in LA, was looking for a way to come back to the state. In addition to directing, he’s now working for the theater part time.

“The 39 Steps” opens Friday, with a 7:30 p.m. performance at Perseverance Theatre. A post-show celebration will follow.

 

“A Christmas Carol,” directed by Ryan Conarro, Nov. 26–Dec. 24

Just in time for the holidays, this classic tale of self-discovery and human connection will include mainstage actors as well as up-and-coming actors from the Perseverance Young Company.

Based on Charles Dickens’ 1840s story, the play tells a timeless tale of the importance of kindness and compassion. Scrooge, a miserable old grouch, is visited by the ghosts of his past, present and future, who help to convince him of the error of his ways while there’s still time for him to enjoy life and improve the lives of others.

The lead role will be played by Anchorage’s Dick Reichman, who played Morrie in last year’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

“As an actor, it’s like the penultimate character, to be able to make that transformation and see all your lives unfold in front of you, and your backstory written on stage,” Strauser said.

The rest of the cast is ensemble based, meaning everyone but Scrooge will take on multiple roles.

Strauser will work with the kids, while director Ryan Conarro will pull the whole thing together. Conarro, a local actor and director, most recently appeared on stage in the character of Lynn Schooler in last season’s world premiere of “The Blue Bear,” a role he will be resuming on the Anchorage stage this season (see sdiebar).

 

“Animals Out of Paper,” directed by Flordelino Lagundino. Jan. 27 – Feb. 12

The third play in the season is an Alaska premiere, and showcases the talents of emerging writer Rajiv Joseph.

“This play takes my breath away,” Strauser said. “It is one of the most beautiful plays I’ve read in a long time.”

This character-driven story explores complex relationships in unexpected ways, Rotch said.

As the play opens, an origami artist named Ilana, played by Elizabeth Pisel-Davis, is experiencing a rough time in her life.

Ilana meets a math teacher, to be played by James Sullivan, who introduces her to a student who also has a great talent for origami.

“If origami is music, she’s classical ... and Suresh is hip-hop,” Rotch said.

The resulting relationships fuel the action of a play in a story the New York Times describes as “alternately wrenching and funny.”

Playwright Joseph, a 2004 graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, won the Vineyard Theatre’s Paula Vogel award in 2008 and was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his work about the Iraq war, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”

Flordelino Lagundino, who most recently appeared in Perseverance’s [title of show] last season, directs.

 

“Raisin in the Sun,” directed by Jade King Carroll, March 9 - April 1

“Raisin in the Sun” is this season’s classic work, but the story also has applications for Alaskan audiences.

“‘Raisin in the Sun’” will look like ‘Raisin in the Sun’ set in 1951, but the themes of the play feel very timely for Alaska right now,” Rotch said. “It’s really about, ‘Can our children achieve what our parents left us, or is our standard of living going to decline?’ all expressed in who gets to own what piece of land — that’s an Alaska story. And a great play.”

Written by Lorraine Hansberry, the story traces the experience of a black family in Chicago, who are rocked by conflict after receiving a life-insurance settlement. The title of the play comes from a poem by Langston Hughes, “A Dream Deferred,” whose opening lines read, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

Director Jade King Carroll recently directed the play with fourth-year drama students at Juilliard, and had previously worked with Rotch in Philadelphia, so she immediately came to mind as a director.

“I just love her mind and I love her work ethic,” he said. “I heard she did a great job with “Raisin in the Sun” and I thought well, lets see if she’ll give it another shot.”

This production is currently being cast.

 

“Bigfoot and Other Lost Souls,” directed by John Woodson. May 4 – 27

At base, “Bigfoot” is a classic quest story, Rotch said, but with a twist.

“The twist is that nobody believes in the Bigfoot. So they’re looking for something they don’t believe is real.”

Written by Mark Hollmann and Adrien Royce, the musical involves characters that are “a little down and out and a little bit odd,” qualities that may be familiar to an Alaskan audience.

The story involves Bernie Bernstein, who, while writing a documentary on Bigfoot, comes into contact with a range of characters, including a Bigfoot expert and his wife, two FBI agents and a fugitive Weatherman.

Composer Hollmann wrote the music and lyrics for “Yeast Nation,” which premiered at Perseverance in 2007, and won a Tony Award in 2002 for his work on the score of “Urinetown” with Greg Kotis. Rotch said part of the draw in bringing this play up to Juneau is the opportunity it provides for local singers to work with Hollmann again.

“Mark’s such a fantastic artist, and he’s a really accomplished composer so getting him back seemed like a good thing.”

Rotch said if all goes well, “Bigfoot” would be a good candidate for next season’s Anchorage plays.

 

Second Stage

In addition to the five mainstage plays, and two Anchorage productions, Perseverance will also host two Second Stage productions, highlighting the work of new Alaska voices.

This season’s plays will be ”Boundary” by Tom Moran, and “Cikiuteklluku (Giving Something Away)” by Holly Stanton,

“Boundary,” now in rehearsal, will feature an all local cast, and will be directed by Terry Kramer, who made her directorial debut with “Wit.” It runs Oct. 7-16.

“Cikiuteklluku,” written by a playwright from Bethel, tells the story of a young girl trying to decide who should raise her baby: her aunties in the village, or her teachers down South.

It runs from May 25 to June 3.

For more information on these productions, visit www.perseverancetheatre.org.

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