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The Stage Is Alive with the Sound of Actors

The next few months on the New York stage are going to be hot! I’d even venture that they’re going to be hottt! Just look at this lineup: Jane Fonda, Kathleen Turner, Susan Sarandon, Will Ferrell, Jeremy Irons, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Gyllenhaal—and for the thespian freaks huddling over in the corner, we have Janet McTeer, Simon Russell Beale, Sinéad Cusack, Denis O’Hare, Lili Taylor, Geoffrey Rush. Yes, they’re all going to shine at the theater in the coming months. In what? Oh, who cares about that!

As much as theater in America likes to think of itself as a somehow “purer” artform than film, it shares with its screen relative a general disregard for the director as auteur. Above-ground plays and movies are both advertised on the strength of their cast—and if it’s a no-name cast, then on the fact that it’s by Shakespeare or Chekhov. I know I’m making a gross generalization here, but generally speaking, New Yorkers don’t get excited by the announcement of a transgressive director’s new project or rumors about a radical reimagining of a classic work. Oh sure, word of mouth often leads to lines around the block for an innovative production with no glittery names attached—in the past few months, this happened to the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Soho Rep’s production of Sarah Kane’s harrowing Blasted and Les Freres Corbusier‘s video-game-inspired musical extravaganza Dance Dance Revolution. But when it comes to advance buzz, it’s all about the actors—and so it is with what we’re expecting from 2009 so far. For instance, when the Roundabout Theatre Company announced it was going to stage Hedda Gabler, did anybody care about how director Ian Rickson would shape this umpteenth revival? No, the only question was: Who’s the star big enough to attract ticket buyers to a play that’s been seen very often in the past decade? (Answer: Mary-Louise Parker.) And so it goes. You’d think we’ve had our fill of Chekhov in past five years, but it turns out there’s always room for one more Uncle Vanya when Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard are in it.

Across the river, it would seem as if the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Bridge Project defies the actors’ trend, driven as it is by a transatlantic collaboration with director Sam Mendes. But how radical will Mendes be with the two frequently revisited chestnuts (Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale) on view starting this month? My guess is, we’ll go to check out how Mendes’s cast, including Simon Russell Beale, Sinéad Cusack, Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke, fares with the (by now well-known) characters.

But far from me to belittle the gravitational pull of actors. Blasted, for instance, would not have been the success it was without the astonishing Reed Birney and Marin Ireland. And yes, I’ve seen at least four Hedda Gablers in the past three years or so, but I’m still very curious to see what Mary-Louise Parker will do with the title role.

This doesn’t mean we should overlook some upcoming productions that don’t rely on marquee power but on stagecraft and the vision of idiosyncratic directors and/or writers. Personally I’m looking forward to This Beautiful City, the new show by the Civilians, at the Vineyard; the reprise of Mabou Mines Dollhouse at St. Ann’s Warehouse, where director Lee Breuer stages Ibsen in a radical manner (shhh, can’t spoil it); and The Shipment, by rising playwright Young Jean Lee, at the Kitchen.

And don’t tell anyone, but I also can’t wait to see Will Ferrell’s one-man show about George W. Bush, too.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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