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.
"The audience has historically been responding to the more complex and serious material, and the returning subscriber rate tells me that we are building a base that is willing to take this adventuresome journey, even though they may not recognize many of the plays we will offer." Already slated for next season are: King Lear (starring actor/director/playwright Austin Pendleton), Stonewall Jackson's House, The Weir, One Flea Spare, and Moby Dick. That's right, Moby Dick. "You never actually see the whale," Lombardo assures me as I look askance at the stage. "But I do have to build some sort of impressionistic boat."
"King Lear and Moby Dick are going to be landmark productions for New Rep in terms of size and difficulty," he continues. "This will be only the fourth production of Moby Dick. I directed the third in Ohio, with a cast of 30. Out of necessity, we're going to have to do a scaled down version with a cast of 13 to 15 here. Some people will be doubling, and even tripling, roles."
Lombardo then mumbles something about orchestras and putting musicians on a second level, which sounds tantalizing, albeit extremely difficult. No matter. "It's a wonderful story. Work like this needs to be seen more often, in process. In the long-term, I want New Rep to have a role in developing new work for the American theater. But I wouldn't have tried a season like this in my first year. When you don't have the right relationship with your audience, there's the worry that nobody will come. It takes awhile to develop that trust. As an artistic director, I have to cherish the audience relationship and be very careful of it."
Rigorous work like this also takes good actors. New Rep's leader is bullish on Boston talent, only casting from New York if citywide auditions fail to turn up a specific actor for a role. As with all good regional companies, some actors return regularly, becoming a welcomed part of the company's "extended family".
"The talent pool in Boston is starting to reach a really healthy critical mass, both in terms of directors and designers and actors," Lombardo maintains. "It's tough, because the artists are only going to stay if they can earn a healthy yearly living wage. That comes about by there being more theaters to work at, and more theaters where people can earn the kind of wage that allows them to put down roots, raise a family--all the things that everyone wants."
"As the Boston theater community gets more healthy, as audiences grow so that more theaters have more money to spend, then there are more opportunities for actors to earn a decent wage. I've seen a definite change in the four years that I've been in Boston. More and more actors are staying in town. Whether they stay long-term becomes dependent on the theaters growing, too. The artists of experience who have stayed and put down roots are precious to the theatres."
To keep talent in town, Lombardo believes that "Boston needs larger midsize theater companies. There's too big a salary gap between The Huntington Theatre and A.R.T., and then the theaters like New Rep and The Lyric that form the next level of work for Boston artists. For the Boston theater community to continue to grow, the smaller theaters need to get bigger, and the next larger theaters, like New Rep, have to take the next step and fill that gap. So I have the goal of growing this company into a more important citywide presence, and ultimately into a much larger national presence."
As for Das Barbecu's role in the growth of serious theater, Lombardo explains, "It was a very heavy season, so I wanted to end on something lighter. Although the show is very demanding technically, in terms of theme, Das Barbecu is really pretty silly." But as a witty and accurate send-up of a legendary classic, Das Barbecu is far more than a bantam-weight addition to the canon of American musical theater. Hidden in the folds of comic excess are both bite and intelligence. And given Lombardo's goals and vision for New Rep, it promises to be well worth a trip to the theater.
Caroline Nesbitt is the third generation of her family to act. She is a performer with Underground Railway Theatre, Seacoast Repertory Theatre, New Art Theatre, and the New Hampshire Performing Arts Center, and is the artistic director of Advice to the Players. She also teaches acting, and is an author and essayist.