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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Alicia Hughes-Skandijs and Bostin Christopher rehearse John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" at Perseverance Theatre last week.

Perseverance opens 34th season with 'Of Mice and Men'

Posted: September 12, 2012 - 11:00pm  |  Updated: September 13, 2012 - 6:14am
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Actors Kevin T. Bennett, left, and Bostin Christopher rehearse John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" at Perseverance Theatre last week. The play opens Perseverance Theatre's season on Friday, September 14.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Actors Kevin T. Bennett, left, and Bostin Christopher rehearse John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" at Perseverance Theatre last week. The play opens Perseverance Theatre's season on Friday, September 14.

One of the great things about our small arts community is the potential it offers for shared experiences as audience members. Every production our theater groups put together is likely to be the one show the Juneau public is seeing and thinking about at any given time. Like a theatrical version of UAS’ One Campus, One Book project, where the whole campus reads the same work simultaneously, our entire community can share in experiencing the stories that cross our stages. They become part of our fall, winter or spring, and those that get under our skin can change the whole tenor of an evening, a week, a season, and beyond.

There’s something great about knowing that many of our neighbors will also likely be thinking about John Steinbeck’s
classic story “Of Mice and Men” at some point over the course of the next few weeks, about its themes of love and friendship, of loneliness and of home. Or that later in the season many of us will be mulling over Harold Pinter or Marcus Gardley’s lines as they run through our heads, and as, maybe for the first time, we adjust our ears to their unique melody and tone.

Though we will all have different reactions to these works, viewing them as a community is another way we strengthen our bonds. And the fact that these stories are carefully selected by Perseverance in part for their artistic merit means that they have a pretty good chance of reaching us on an individual level, one way or another.

Preparing a season of plays is delicate balancing act that must include many factors in addition to audience experience: challenges and suitability for the actors and other members of the team, language, economics, originality and many other factors.

This season, five stories will be presented. There’s a classic (”Of Mice and Men”), a musical (“Oklahoma”), a work by a Nobel Prize winning author (“Betrayal”), a comedy (“Seminar”) and a brand new work (“the road weeps, the well runs dry”).

Chosen by a committee that includes Perseverance staff, board members and long-time subscribers, the five plays aren’t selected for their common themes, but themes often emerge organically as the season comes together. Artistic director Art Rotch and artistic associate and marketing director Bostin Christopher offered some thoughts on the ideas they’ve been thinking about this season.

“We knew that we were doing ‘Betrayal,’ ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Of Mice and Men,’ and ‘the road weeps the well runs dry’ earlier in the process, and ‘Seminar’ came a little bit later,” Rotch said. “And those four all have something to do with self discovery, or a journey of some kind.”

Christopher agreed.

“There’s migration, identity, self exploration, and discovery of self through all of those other things I just mentioned,” Christopher said. “A lot of them have to do with land, in a way, even ‘Betrayal,’ which is really about relationships, (in terms of) the solidness of your land, with your relationship being the land.”

“And friendship I think is a big one. And love, in the end. ‘Mice and Men,’ all of them — ‘Betrayal,’ ‘Oklahoma,’ and definitely ‘the road weeps,’ they all have that underlying thing about what defines a relationship, how deep do they go.”

Here’s a closer look at the five plays.

 

“Of Mice and Men.” Sept. 14-Oct. 7

Opening Friday, Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” centers on the relationship of two friends, George and Lennie, both migrant workers in the 1930s. The book was required reading for most in high school -- and in fact some high school classes in Juneau are reading it now in preparation for viewing the play. Rotch said Steinbeck wrote the book with the intention of it being a play as well as a novel.

Rotch directs and Christopher plays Lennie (see “Switching Hats” story at right).

In learning to be Lennie, Christopher said he has been thinking a lot about Steinbeck’s animal imagery in reference to this character – how Lennie drinks from the river “like a horse,” or walks “like a bear.” Lennie exists very much in the moment, Christopher said, going with whatever emotion he is having at the time.

“It's interesting as an actor, because as an actor you’re usually looking for intention, or what you’re trying to get from somebody else, ... and those don’t really apply here,” he said.

“I’ve found that the focus has been much more pinpoint in relation to someone who supposedly isn’t that focused. As an actor it takes more concentration and more focus to play unfocused and unconcentrated. So it’s been a wild ride. But I just try to be as present in the moment as I can.”

Christopher’s Lennie is matched with Kevin Bennett as George, an actor from Anchorage. Anchorage actor Dick Reichman, known to many in Juneau as last season’s Ebenezer Scrooge, plays Candy. Other actors are Brandon Demery as Slim, and Roblin Gray Davis as Curley, Alicia Hughes-Skandijs as Curley’s wife, Corin Hughes-Skandijs as Carlson,
Bryan Crowder as Whit, Jerry Demmert as the Boss, and Charles Branklyn of Oakland as Crooks.

“Of Mice and Men” is one of three plays that will be produced at the Sydney Laurence Theatre at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage this season, along with “Betrayal” and last season’s “Bigfoot and Other Lost Souls.” This is the second season of Anchorage performances.

Christopher, who grew up in Anchorage before moving to New York City, said he’s excited to be going back to perform in on the Anchorage stage as Lennie.

“I performed on the Sydney Laurence stage many many many many moons ago in ‘Come Back, Little Sheba’ so it’ll be fun to be up there again,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that part of it.”

Most are familiar with the story of George and Lennie, two migrant workers who land on a ranch in California in the mid-1930s and begin working comfortably with the other men, only to have their temporary stability shattered when a lonely woman, Curley’s wife, is introduced to the men’s circle. The concept of friendship is central to the play, as is what happens to people when it is absent.

“There’s a scene I have with Crooks and he says, ’A man needs somebody,” Christopher said. “And I don’t think he’s talking about just men, he’s talking about man as mankind. That you’d go crazy with loneliness, you’d get sick (without others). And that’s a very powerful idea in this play.

 

“Oklahoma!” Nov. 9-Dec. 9

“Oklahoma,” the next play of the season, is set 30 years earlier, at a time when optimism about the American West was running high. At that time, in 1904, Oklahoma was still a territory, and questions about land ownership, particularly between ranchers and farmers, are big issues in this story.

Most people know the play for its music and dancing. It was the first collaboration between legendary duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and is considered one of the most influential works of American musical theater ever written.

For this project, Perseverance will bring in Juneau Dance Unlimited’s Ricci Adan as choreographer. Adan recently moved to town and has extensive experience with musical theater, making this production possible, Rotch said.

“A lot of the story is told through dance as well as music, so you can’t do it without being able to choreograph it,” Rotch said. “Ricci is a specialist in Rodgers and Hammerstein choreography and she knows the show pretty well, so having her in the community is kind of like having Bostin around to play Lennie: it just creates an opportunity to do it. Taking advantage of that is great.”

The collaborative aspect also extends to the dancers in the production. Rotch said there will likely be overlap between the two arts groups in terms of who is on stage, perhaps paving the way for more musical theater productions in the future.

“We have kids that act and sing some, and JDU has kids that dance and act some, so if we work together maybe some of the dancers will develop more theater muscles and some of the theater kids will develop more dance muscles,” Rotch said.

Christopher said he anticipates that this popular musical will sell out early and encourages those who don’t hold season tickets to purchase their single tickets early so they won’t be disappointed

At the helm directing this production is Perseverance’s Shona Strauser.

 

“Betrayal” Jan. 11 - Feb. 3

Strauser will then move into one of the lead roles in the next production, “Betrayal,” while Christopher takes the opposite trajectory and moves into the directing position (see “Switching Hats” at right).

“Betrayal,” by Nobel Prize winning author Harold Pinter, was selected in part for the strength of the script. This will be Perseverance’s first production by Pinter.

“Harold Pinter he’s one of the great not only playwrights but writers, I guess, of the last century,” Christopher said. “This is maybe one of his most accessible plays in terms of the story.”

The story centers on a love triangle between two best friends and one of their wives. But with a twist: it is told backwards.

“In this case what’s brilliant about it is that the audience has more information than the characters on stage,” Rotch said. “So what we get to watch is when they get the information. It’s just astonishingly brilliant.”

Christopher said the design team is still working out how they will let the audience know that time is running in the opposite direction. He is also thinking about steering the team toward a minimalist approach to the story, to keep the audience’s focus on the play’s language and acting.

“Even though there will still be wonderful production elements, we’re looking at this idea of minimalism — how little can we use and get away with so the focus is really on the actors,” Christopher said.

“’Betrayal’ is a great actors piece,” Rotch agreed. “It’s gripping, hard to watch and very, very good.”

“Betrayal” will also travel to Anchorage in April.

 

“Seminar” March 8-31

The season then swings back to the lighter side with “Seminar,” a comedy by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Cynthia Croot. This play was on Broadway last spring, and Perseverance is one of the first regional theaters in the country to produce it.

“Lots of years there’s been kind of and up-and-coming script, something that’s just came off Broadway, the kind of thing that you would normally have to go to Seattle or San Francisco to get,” Rotch said in reference to “Seminar.”

“And Rebeck is a pretty significant contemporary writer. Probably if you’ve been watching television any time in the past 20 years you’ve heard her words. And here she is, this is her latest. And it’s a good one.”

Rebeck’s television writing includes “NYPD Blue” and “Smash.”

“Her writing is really quick, it’s very witty, it’s very smart.” Rotch said. “It’s writing that comes to you, I like to say. Pinter makes you lean forward a little bit, and Marcus (Gardley) will definitely bathe you in something that you’ll have to work to fully appreciate, but this comes to you wherever you are, and that’s nice.”

The story centers on four young writers who take a writing class from a difficult and famous literary hero. Over the course of the class, each one is pushed to confront their own problems.

“Nobody’s perfect by a long stretch,” Rotch said of the characters. “They’re a group of characters who are easy to understand because they all have some kind of problem. You don’t learn what the master teacher’s problem is — he’s in the power position — until the very end, which is nicely done.”

 

“the road weeps, the well runs dry” May 3-26

The last play of the season is “the road weeps, the well runs dry,” written by Marcus Gardley and directed by Lydia Fort. Like Pinter’s “Betrayal,” Christopher and Rotch praised it for the strength of the language.

This play, a world premiere, is being produced through the Lark Play Development Center’s Launching New Plays into the Repertoire project, a collaboration between theater organizations around the country that helps promote new work with multiple productions in one season. Perseverance will be the first of four regional theaters to produce Gardley’s play.

A reading of the play was held last spring on Perseverance’s Second Stage, and this season Perseverance hopes to host readings of two of Gardley’s related works which serve as a prequel and sequel to “the road weeps.”

Bringing Gardley to Juneau audiences is an exciting prospect, Rotch said.

“He’s really on fire,” he said. “His talent is off the charts. He was a poet and he sang in the black church before he became a playwright and it shows. There is a musicality to his language, there’s a heightened quality to his language, it’s really lyrical.”

The play traces the history of the Black Seminole (African and Native American) people in Oklahoma and spans 20 years. Rotch said it blends history and myth on an epic scale but is ultimately about personal relationships.

“At the end of the day I think the play deals with identity and love,” Rotch said. “There’s things that happen where the characters have to decide ‘what are you? what’s your identity?’ ... And the process of bringing those different identities together happens through their relationships, marriage and other relationships, between different kinds of people.”

This is a theme that has resonance for modern audiences.

“We keep discovering who we are, and it’s not a constant.”

For more on each of these plays and ticket information, visit www.perseverancetheatre.org.

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