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Brand New Theater Season, Brand New Plays

Dan Shanahan's "Area" at Tom Space. (photo by: Lukia Costello)

This fall brings a host of world premieres to Buffalo stages

Broadway is often called “the fabulous invalid.” New Yorkers perpetually bemoan the demise of theater as we know it, and in the next instant…Phantom of the Opera, Angels in America, Jersey Boys. Broadway theater invents and reinvents itself.

Garson Kanin, the Rochester-born Broadway director and author of Born Yesterday, once told me, “They always say the theater is just about dead, but all you need is three hits in a season and the same people will say ‘Broadway is back—better than ever!’” Last season the fabulous invalid managed to crank out Dividing the Estate, God of Carnage, Reasons to Be Pretty, 33 Variations, Billy Elliott, Next to Normal, Rock of Ages, and Shrek—as well as hit revivals of Hair, Mary Stuart, and Waiting for Godot. I guess Broadway was back, and better than ever!

The theater scene in Buffalo could also be called a fabulous invalid. The theaters of our town soldier on through recession and cuts in funding, through every sort of backstage drama and sturm und drang, but year after year, in time for the Curtain Up! celebration, they return to entertain, inspire, and illumine our lives with a litany of tempting titles.

"Grenadine" at Road Less Traveled

Some might conclude that the closing of Studio Arena Theatre is symptomatic of a blight on theater here, but to see the numerous small theaters in operation, that’s obviously not true. In fact, many of Buffalo’s small theaters could offer a master class in how to stay in business, how to produce within one’s means, and how to generate community excitement. How odd that government will pump money into fly-by-night restaurants and microbreweries, when our cultural institutions are the joints that prove they’ve got staying power, over and over again.

The new season, about to start, is a case in point, and we’re not talking about a nonstop supply of familiar titles and safely mindless fare either. Just consider the large number of world premieres, many by local playwrights, in the Curtain Up! roster. These aren’t just recent Broadway and off-Broadway shows. These are brand new, never-before-seen plays.

Alleyway Theatre

Long ago, the Alleyway Theatre set the pace for presenting new work. In fact, developing new plays is their long-held raison d’être. Alleyway artistic director and founder Neal Radice begins his season with the world premiere of The Careful Glover, a dramatic speculation on the last day in the life of William Shakespeare written by Jim Baines and directed by Mr. Radice himself. The production stars Saul Elkin (founder of Shakespeare in Delaware Park) as Shakespeare with, Katie White, Pamela Rose Mangus, David Hayes, Joyce Stilson, David Mitchell, Michael Seitz, and Richard Lambert. Here, the playwright imagines that Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford in 1616 “was only prelude to a literary fireworks that might burn down the world of Elizabethan theater.” The production runs September 10-October 3, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30, and Saturdays at 4 & 8. Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley (852-2600).

New Phoenix Theatre

The New Phoenix Theatre is also starting its season with a world premiere: Freud and the Sandman, billed as “a new and uncanny entertainment,” the play is based on “The Sandman” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, about a folk-figure who steals the eyes of naughty children, and an original version by Sigmund Freud with puppets by Michele Costa and original score by Paul Kozlowski. Bob Waterhouse directs. The cast will include “a two and a half foot puppet of Freud…two disembodied dancing feet, two disembodied hands, eyeballs in various sizes, flying books, a dancing chemise with breasts, and a telescopic penis,” as well as human performers Laura Bevilacqua, David Butterfield, Patrick Cain, Martha Rothkopf, and Christian Brandjes. Designed by Dyan O’Connell, Franklin LaVoie, and Martha Rothkopf, Freud and the Sandman runs September 11-October 3, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm at the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park (853-1334).

Torn Space Theater

Dan Shanahan, Buffalo’s most prodigious avant-garde impresario, begins his season with a reworking of his own play Area. Expect a non-narrative installation with eye-popping visual elements at the Torn Space company, performing at the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, at 612 Fillmore Avenue. Shanahan has a talent for creating striking video and stage picture and for giving us arresting visions of beautiful women in the process. Think film noir meets Antonin Artaud for this exploration of two women cast into a world of memory and deception as they confront their roles in a violent crime. Area will star Kara Gabrielle McKenney, Rebecca Globus, and Melissa Meola. September 10-12, 18 & 20, 25-27 at 8. (812-5733).

Matthew Creahan Higgins

Road Less Traveled Theatre

The Road Less Traveled Theatre continues its ambitious bid for a national profile, launching its new season with Grenadine, a world premiere comedy by local playwright, Neil Wechsler. Grenadine boasts the distinction of having won the Yale Drama Award in 2008, an international prize for emerging playwrights. That year, the contest was judged by the great American playwright, Edward Albee, author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, The Zoo Story, and a host of other influential plays. Albee plans to attend the production at RLTP in Buffalo. Grenadine is a comedy about love and friendship, in which four friends embark on a fantastical journey to win the heart of the fabled Grenadine. “Through their journey the bonds of friendship are challenged and ultimately reaffirmed by the quartet’s escapades through an unfamiliar landscape.” Grenadine will be directed by Scott Behrend, and will star Gerry Maher, David Oliver, Jay Pichardo, Luke Wager, Peter Jaskowiak, Bonnie Jean Taylor, Lisa Vitrano, and Chris Corporandy. The production runs September 11 at 8, September 12-October 11, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 2, at the Road Less Traveled Theater, Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre, 639 Main St. (852-5000).buffalo united artists

BUA has been quite devoted to the work of Matthew Crehan Higgans, including his award-winning autobiographical play, Confessions—which took top honors at the national Gay & Lesbian Theatre Festival a few years ago. Now, BUA will open their new season at their new theater space with The Pipes are Calling: An Elegy to Dan Higgins, Sr., a world premiere of another autobiographical work, written and performed by Mr. Higgins. The Pipes are Calling tells the story of the death of Higgins paternal grandfather, who was also the father of the playwright’s uncle, U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins. The production explores the loss of a family patriarch through Alzheimer’s disease and will be directed by Javier Bustillos. The Pipes are Calling runs September 11- 19, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. in the BUA Theater, 119 Chippewa St. (886-9239).

Theatre Plus

Theatre Plus, the resident women’s company at Alleyway, begins its season with the world premiere of 24 With Maggie by Buffalo playwright Beth Geyer, directed by Thomas Dooney. The play is “a collection of clever little plays woven together with the character Maggie Bauer as she humorously struggles through a single 24 hour day. Her therapist is needy, her writing group plagiarizes…work is play, and her book club is anything but!” 24 With Maggie features popular Alleyway actors Stephanie Bax and Christopher S. Parada, and runs September 10-19, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm (852-2600).

New Work, New Energy

This abundance of new work is an indication of a robustly healthy theater scene. There are, of course, other measures of artistic health that are less vigorous. While the closing of Studio Arena freed up recent New York hits for other local productions, we will not be seeing as many this season as last. And there are implications to the loss of a resident Equity company that can hire important actors, directors, and designers in New York. This deprives us of an important connection to the national theater scene. Truth be told, it had been years since Studio Arena could really claim to have a national profile. Shea’s brings in big shows and sometimes big names, from Chita Rivera to Lou Diamond Phillips, but it is still a presenting house, dependent on the ability of Broadway to generate new product, entirely divorced from the spirit and concerns of Western New York. A number of small theaters in town do seem to have aspirations to fill that important void, however, as Edward Albee’s visit to Road Less Traveled might indicate. And it is also notable that the theater departments at a number of local colleges have upped the ante for importing major talent to interact with students—UB, Buffalo State, and Niagara University among them.

Still, the upcoming theater season looks promising and the abundance of brand new work is unprecedented—and it bears mention, the best way to support Buffalo’s theaters is at the box office.

I’ll see you at Curtain Up!

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