No one can accuse Mark Harelik of neglecting his family. First he went and wrote a play, The Immigrant: A Hamilton Country Album, about his grandparents' experience as Russian Jews who came to the U.S. in the first years of the 20th century and settled in a central Texas town. After the play's acclaimed debut at the Denver Center Theater Company in 1984 and a subsequent string of productions nationwide, Harelik revisited it--this time collaborating with lyricist Sarah Knapp and composer Steven M. Alper to turn The Immigrant, and the Harelik family story, into a musical.
The new The Immigrant, like the old one, makes no pretense of being fictional: The hero's name is Haskell Harelik, just like Mark's real grandpa. "In telling the story, I use the real place names and the family names of the people," the author explains. "It's family history but it also becomes the story of immigrants [in general], whoever they may be, from whatever country."
Of course, there's another interesting journey here: from The Immigrant (straight play) to The Immigrant (musical version). Harelik had long thought that his script would make a swell tuner and when he met Knapp and Alper, a Brooklyn-based songwriting team, he was convinced they were the ones to make it happen. Thus began a remarkable long-distance relationship. "I live in LA and they live in Brooklyn," Harelik explains. "We bounced ideas back and forth over email and by post, and we re-formed the scenes. We essentially developed it by mailing tapes back and forth." As the project neared completion, Harelik's East Coast collaborators secured a workshop production at CAP21 in New York, which led to a showcase production...which led to the Denver Center offering to bring The Immigrant back where it began for a full-scale production.
After closing in Denver on February 23, The Immigrant will travel to the Coconut Grove in Miami for a reprise. Who knows where it will wander after that?
LIFE AND DEATH IN CANADA
The Canadians, often more clever than we give them credit for, have outdone themselves this time. Mortality, a dance and storytelling and music extravaganza from the experimental theater company Volcano, opens January 16 in Toronto and promises to be an event well beyond description. Volcano's intrepid founder and artistic director, Ross Manson, commissioned new pieces from three of the Great White North's most famous authors: Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Carol Shields, humorist Paul Quarrington, and playwright Tomson Highway. These texts were incorporated into a massive, collaborative effort combining the talents of choreographer Kate Alton (artistic director of Overall Dance) and composer John Gzowski, with transitional sequences written by the poet Stephen Dobyns (an American--shh!).
"I was reading this material by Stephen Dobyns and I said 'Whoa, there's something in here,'" Manson says of Mortality's genesis. After the success of Building Jerusalem, Volcano's previous multi-disciplinary project, Manson had been on the lookout for material he could work with. "There's a [Dobyns] poem called 'Querencia', an untranslatable Spanish word," he relates. "The poem was about mortality, and I thought, 'This could work in a dance-theater context.' That's what started it. Of course I ended up not using that poem."
In a dreadful coincidence, Carol Shields was diagnosed with cancer not two months after she agreed to take on this project about mortality; she is now quite ill and will be unable to attend. Manson says that the text Shields produced, reflecting on her own illness, is quite extraordinary: "She wrote a piece during her first round of chemo. Then, a couple weeks before we started this [final] process, she completely rewrote the piece based on all she's learned during her illness. And the leap from the first version...it was already very good, as you can imagine, but the final version is an awesome piece of writing. Utterly honest. I feel very honored that she put this much work into it."
IF IT AIN'T BAROQUE...
Many of us managed to miss the sold-out premiere engagement of The Baroque Opera at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts in 1999, but now we have a second chance. The Forman Brothers, sons of noted film director Milos Forman (Amadeus, etc.), present their puppetized interpretation of a Czech opera dating from the 1700s; the story concerns two bumbling masons who screw up a job and scramble to make it right. The press release from Center for Puppetry Arts, by the by, includes a quote from one Rod Young, who writes in the Puppetry Journal that the The Baroque Opera is "played with wild abandon and yet with great finesse and care. From puppet animals to birds, tiny settings, and props, it is all merriment and playful action."
Rod Young: the Ben Brantley of the Puppetry Journal. The Baroque Opera: Sure to be a treat in miniature.
WILLIAMS A GO-GO
In Hartford, Connecticut, it's time to drink the yearly toast to Tennessee. The quintessential Southern playwright is honored annually in this very Northern city with Hartford Stage's Tennessee Williams Marathon, this year anchored by Letters From Tennessee: A Distant Country Called Youth. The new one-man show, which at Hartford will star a rotating group of heavyweights (such as Campbell Scott and Mark Lamos) portraying the tortured young genius, debuted as part of the Manhattan Theater Club's Writers in Performance series in May of last year.
As with past Williams Marathons (this is year four for a project beloved of Hartford Stage's artistic director Michael Wilson), the featured production will run for two weeks, culminating in a final performance surrounded by a day's worth of Tennessee-tastic readings, screenings, and discussions. The full schedule is available here.
Previous marathon productions included Camino Real, The Glass Menagerie, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Letters from Tennessee is a horse of a different color: An adaptation by Steve Lawson of Williams' letters written between 1925 and 1940, it provides a glimpse inside one of the American theater's most fascinating minds and most troubled souls.