With a cast of five playing 35 roles, costumes for each of those roles, and a five-piece orchestra, it's hard to imagine where all the people, instruments, and clothing racks are going to go, given the New Rep's 22-foot stage. "The orchestra is going to sit between those dotted lines," says Lombardo cheerfully, pointing to a space that seems barely adequate for a roll of stamps. Then he admits that he is still working out the details of where to put all the costumes.
Das Barbecu, a hilarious spoof of Wagner's operatic Ring Cycle set in Texas, seems an odd choice for a small theater to end its already intense season with. There is the obvious drawback of staging a large musical in a cramped space. Then there's the risk of choosing a relatively unknown and admittedly challenging work (written by Jim Luigs and Scott Warrender on a commission from the Seattle Opera, the show was a critical success, but commercial failure, at Off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre). But producing artistic director Lombardo just smiles, explaining, "I have epic ambitions, but a small theater."
"New Rep has a very sophisticated audience," Lombardo continues. "In our history the top-grossing plays have never been the sillier, lighter stuff that most theaters do when they want to make money. In the last two years our top grossing plays have been Kindertransport [about a young woman who escapes the Holocaust and lives with a family in England], Beast on the Moon [about two survivors of the Armenian genocide], and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [Tom Stoppard's pre-Shakespeare in Love riff on the Bard]."
The latter production, besides being a success with the audience, received awards from the Independent Reviewers Association of New England for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Lighting Design. New Rep's entire 15th season ran at over 80 percent capacity, with a subscriber base so solid that 50 percent of its 155 seats for each performance were sold before the doors even opened. And did I mention that the theater is housed in a church?
The story goes like this: New Repertory Theatre began in 1984 with a group of Boston artists who wanted to start a theater company. More by accident than design, they wound up in the well-to-do western suburb of Newton, which already boasted a strong tradition of theatergoing. The community welcomed the idea of a resident company that would allow them access to good productions without traveling. New Rep became successful very quickly, and before long outgrew its first home. Enter the Community Church in Newton Highlands, which already had a small performance space that hosted pageants and community theater offerings. It became New Repertory Theatre's logical base, and the company has been housed there ever since.
Lombardo came to head the company four years ago, fresh from successes at the helm of Players Guild in Canton, Ohio, and before that, Stillwaters Theatre Company in New York City. He spent his first three years getting to know New Rep's audience and the Boston artistic community, but even in his earliest seasons he was "looking for ways to push the edge of the envelope, artistically and technically."
"I've never been interested in keeping the status quo. I want to tell good stories and I want to tell them well. I want to find a way to embrace an audience, while pushing their expectations and asking them to take a new journey with us," Lombardo says. This, of course, requires a great deal of trust, and attention to the audience dynamic. "You have to meet their expectations, and then exceed them," he adds. When this occurs, the audience gains in sophistication and becomes more willing to "take a leap of faith" with their resident company, even if the upcoming seasons have unfamiliar and challenging work represented.