For Eric Rosen, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s new season is personal. As the Rep prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary later this month with an elaborate fundraiser, the company’s artistic director has assembled a season that not only speaks to him as an artist but also reflects the proud history of Kansas City’s leading nonprofit theater company. As Rosen and his staff began to work out the details, one thing was clear from the beginning: Nothing about the 2014-15 season would be easy. Or predictable. Or ordinary. Rosen wanted to organize a season that would honor the theater, the work of its previous artistic directors, its significance among not-for-profit theaters across the country and its importance to the local cultural community.
As one of a handful of nonprofit theater companies established in the early to mid-1960s, the Rep and others such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis and Seattle Repertory Theatre represented a major step forward for the regional theater movement.
The Rep, initially an adjunct to what became the UMKC Theatre Department, came from humble beginnings. In the beginning, budgets were small, seasons were short and shows were performed in a venue called the Quonset Hut that lacked air-conditioning. But founding artistic director Patricia McIlrath wanted nothing less than to achieve the highest levels of quality possible with the available resources. As the company grew, she brought in internationally known directors and sometimes showed a streak of pure audacity — such as producing the two-part Charles Dickens epic “Nicholas Nickleby.” “We talked all year about the fact that the Rep was one of six theaters founded between ’62 and ’66,” Rosen said. “It was this sort of amazing moment in the mid-’60s when these theaters got started. And we’ve been thinking a lot about how the country is different because of these theaters.”
The season, a mix of reconsidered classics and new work, is “a collection of plays about transformation — transformation of the country or the world, transformation of theater as we know it,” Rosen said. The season begins in September with Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,”
the three-act 1938 classic about the residents of Grover’s Corners, a fictional New England village where life continues at a languid pace in synchronicity with the universe.
Often superficially regarded as a Rockwellian postcard extolling the simple virtues of an earlier time, the play in fact is a profound reflection on life and death and our place in the cosmos. To stage the piece, Rosen has invited director David Cromer, the man behind the Rep’s stunning production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” arguably the best show of Rosen’s inaugural season and one of the finest of his tenure.
Cromer achieved the holy grail of New York theater — critical praise combined with sold-out performances — with his radically re-imagined production of “Our Town” at the Barrow Street Theatre in 2009. He took his cue from Wilder, who rejected stage realism by creating a play that made no effort to convince the viewers that they were witnessing “real life.”
Cromer took the conceit to a logical but surprising conclusion. In the confines of the intimate off-Broadway theater, the viewers were close enough to the actors to reach out and touch them. Cromer will stage “Our Town” at the Spencer Theatre, but there’s no way he could achieve what he did in New York with a conventional proscenium show. Rosen, who has shown a willingness to tear seats out of the Spencer when artistic goals demanded it, said viewers could expect an unusual configuration, perhaps similar to what they encountered when the Rep presented the Living Room’s production of “Carousel.”
For that show, a rough-hewn performance area was constructed in the center of the theater surrounded by raked seating sections, one of which was positioned on top of the Spencer stage.
“It will not be the general proscenium set-up,” Rosen said. “Something weird will happen.”
Rosen said the play has been one of his favorites since high school. At one point he suggested that he might play the Stage Manager, the play’s combination narrator, Greek chorus and philosophical sage. But he quickly decided against it. “That was my idea, and I quashed it,” he said. “I read some things out loud and realized I’m not an actor. David convinced me you can get real actors to do the same thing.”
Rosen did, however, perform the Stage Manager’s third-act monologue in high school speech tournaments.
“And I can still quote it verbatim,” he said. “It is seared in my brain.
“Thornton Wilder changed the way we think about what theater is. He sort of destroyed naturalism and opened the door for most of what happened in 20th-century American and Irish and British theater. He threw out the conventions of the time, of realistic sets and costumes, and stripped it down to as little as possible. It was revolutionary in its time.”
Rosen will direct the second show of the season, “The Who & the What,”
by Ayad Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013 for “Disgraced.” Akhtar, a native of New York who grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., is a Pakistani-American playwright who also writes novels and screenplays. “The Who & the What” depicts a family of Muslim Americans living in Atlanta. The father, a native of Pakistan, has become a successful owner of taxis and has raised his daughters as Americans. When one of them writes a book that could be considered blasphemous by other family members and the Muslim community at large, a crisis is at hand. Rosen sees the play as “a classic immigration story” about the difficulties of assimilation that he relates to through the lens of his own Jewish heritage.
Akhtar, he said, is an “emerging, big-deal kind of guy we like to be associated with. He’s someone who’s able to synthesize the American story of immigrants and the difficulties and rewards of melting into this pot, if you will — and yet telling it from a perspective that (usually) isn’t represented.”
The first show of 2015 will be “An Iliad,”
an adaptation of Homer’s timeless war epic by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson. Conceived more or less as a one-actor show, the production will be directed by Jerry Genochio and will feature Kyle Hatley, the Rep’s associate artistic director. Rosen saw O’Hare, who is also an actor, perform the piece a few years ago at the Sundance Institute. “ ‘The Iliad’ is at the roots of theater,” Rosen said. “It’s a known poem that only existed in actors’ heads for hundreds of years before it was written down. It was only known as a performance.
“The story itself and that performer-audience relationship was so unbelievably intense that it restored something historical and essential about what theater is. You know, we’re all basically just huddled around a campfire listening to someone tell stories.”
Director Gary Griffin, who staged a memorable production of the farce “A Flea in Her Ear” for the Rep, returns to stage Tony Kushner’s two-part epic, “Angels in America.”
This marks the first time the Rep has staged the show, which was produced by the Unicorn Theatre in the 1990s. Rosen called Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, which exists as two full-length plays and will be presented in rotating repertory, “the most important play of the last 20 years.” The play was set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis but also dealt with political and personal hypocrisy, sexual identity and the way religion informs moral choices.
When you consider that Kushner’s work depicted the “intellectual legitimacy of Jews and Mormons and gay people and anyone struggling against God to make sense of the world in what he called a ‘gay fantasia on American themes,’ it’s just improbable that it could take the culture by storm the way it did.”
Rosen said the play had a profound effect on his personal life and career as a theater artist. “I do not know of a better example of how a play changed the way we think about things,” he said. “By humanizing and elevating that soap opera of characters — lovers betrayed, families disrupted, drug addiction — it’s a fantastic story, but it put gay identity at the center of American life. It certainly captured the zeitgeist.”
A major production yet to be announced will fill the March-April slot, and the season will conclude with a new play by the Rep’s resident playwright, Nathan Louis Jackson.
Jackson’s “When I Come to Die” was an artistic highlight of the 2013-14 season. The new piece, “Sticky Traps,”
depicts a mother’s desire to protect the honor of a son who has died, but she triggers unforeseen consequences by doing so. Rosen said the play deals with sexual and ethnic identity, among other themes. Kyle Hatley will direct. “He structured it around ‘Antigone’ and shows this woman’s struggle to do what’s right and bury her son with dignity,” Rosen said. The play, he added, will offer the humor of Jackson’s “Broke-ology” and the dramatic power of “When I Come to Die.”
In addition to the regular season, the Rep will offer two holiday shows: the annual production of “A Christmas Carol”
at the Spencer and a reprise of “Santaland Diaries”
at Copaken Stage. Another possibility, Rosen said, might be a full production of “Stillwater,”
a musical by Nathan Tysen that was workshopped at the Living Room in 2013. That show would not be part of the regular season.
• “Our Town,” Sept. 5-28, Spencer Theatre
• “The Who & the What,” Oct. 17-Nov. 16, Copaken Stage
• “An Iliad,” Jan. 23-Feb. 15, Spencer Theatre
• “Angels in America,” Feb. 20-March 29, Copaken Stage
• TBA, March 20-April 12, Spencer Theatre
• “Sticky Traps,” April 24-May 24, Copaken Stage
Call 816-235-2700 or go to KCRep.org.