"Hanukah is not the Jewish Christmas," says Susan Lieberman, author of the new musical Prairie Lights, presented by Chicago's Stage Left Theater. Based on Lieberman's teleplay Prairie Latkes, the show opens on November 12 and runs through January 4.
Featuring lyrics by David Rush and music by Rosalie Gerut, the musical can be seen as an alternative to the plethora of productions of A Christmas Carol that crop up around this time of year. (The Chicago area features two of these: the annual production at the Goodman and another at Metropolis Performing Arts Center). Set in 1905, Prairie Lights revolves around two Jewish children who arrive in Wellspring, Nebraska along with several other orphans. The year before, the town had been devastated by an outbreak of scarlet fever. "They lost many, many townspeople," says Lieberman. "One impetus for bringing in these orphans is to repopulate the town, but they discover that you can't replace the dead."
While focusing on Benjamin and Rose, the show deals with issues of tolerance and religion among the townspeople. The Jewish couple that adopts the children, for example, are not very comfortable with their own relationship to faith. "The husband has a successful dry goods store and he's pretty much given up Judaism," says Lieberman. "In lots of ways, he tries to hide the fact that he's Jewish. These children come from an Orthodox family and Benjamin puts it on the line with his new father as to who he really is. [The father] has to come out of the closet as a Jew in the course of the play, and that's a very complex issue."
Despite these serious themes, Lieberman describes Prairie Lights as a family musical. Composer Gerut concurs: "It shows how people can be brought together. In the end, it's a very happy holiday show for Christmas and Hanukah." The music draws from a variety of styles, including ragtime, Eastern European folk music, and rock. However, Gerut's biggest influence is the American musical theater. "I love melody," she says. "My idols growing up were Rodgers and Hammerstein. I look for melodies in songs, and that's what I try to do here."
Gerut recognizes that some may find her eclectic style off-putting. "There's a rock song to which I'll probably get all kinds of reactions," she states. "It's called 'I Wanna Be a Maccabee.' I was trying to add to the collection of Hanukah tunes that kids sing now, and I wanted to do something peppy, but some people are going to say it doesn't belong in the show."
If the musical is successful this year, chances are that Stage Left will make it an annual tradition. Soon, perhaps, we'll see productions of Prairie Lights crop us as often as those Christmas Carols.
LESSONS IN BOORISHNESS
A double bill of Eugene Ionesco and Anton Chekhov may not seem like the most natural combination, but it worked for the Santa Monica Playhouse 40 years ago when it first opened its doors. Now, the Playhouse is reviving two short works -- Ionesco's The Lesson -- with co-artistic directors Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie reprising their acclaimed performances from previous productions at the Playhouse.
"At first glance, [Ionesco and Chekhov] seem to be strange bedfellows," admits DeCarlo. "They share a strikingly similar artistic vision, however. Both approached their work with the same end in mind -- the creation of truth through fiction and the examination of the absurdity of the human condition." The Ionesco piece strikes a blow to bourgeois education as a teacher and his pupil engage in, literally, a life-or-death struggle over language. According to Rudie, Ionesco rated the Playhouse's productions of The Lesson and The Bald Soprano "magnificent" and praised the company for its fidelity to his original intent. Rudie first played the role of the pupil in 1968 and has reprised it several times since.
In Chekhov's play, Rudie portrays Madame Popova, a widow who is hounded by a bankrupt farmer to whom her late husband owed money. Like DeCarlo, Rudie finds a lot of similarity between the two playwrights' work. "The mystery and multiplicity of daily existence, the inevitable link of the catastrophic with the trivial, the ebb and flow of human foible and folly -- both Chekhov and Ionesco challenge us to look into the mirror of that existence and recognize these reflections as our own," she states, "though Chekhov's looking glass may come from a lady's boudoir and Ionesco's from a fun house hall of mirrors."
The double bill, which opened in October, was recently extended through January 31.
High school students get a different kind of education as the Lenox, Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company presents its Fall Festival of Shakespeare. The annual program involves trained company artists and production staff going into 10 area high schools. They work with kids aged 13-18 for two months, rehearsals focusing on the dynamic realization of Shakespeare's text and the students' response to it. The process incorporates research, movement, stage combat, and period dance. Students also have a hand in lighting design, set construction, sound, props, costumes, stage management, poster design, and publicity. The Shakespeare intensive culminates in a four-day celebration of plays at Shakespeare & Company's Founders Theatre.
"The Festival teaches these adolescents to speak sublime poetry in their own accents," says Kevin G. Coleman, Shakespeare & Company's director of Education. This year, they sink their teeth into productions of As You Like It, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and not one but two productions of Hamlet!
Budget cuts almost spelled disaster for the festival, with the Massachusetts Cultural Council cutting $27,000 worth of state funding to Shakespeare & Company's Education Program. However, last minute donations from businesses, individuals, schools, and parents have allowed the project to continue. "We have received overwhelming support from many of our friends who are committed to the festival," says Mary Hartman, Director of Education Programs. "The schools themselves have scrambled to keep the project available to their students."
At a time when state and federal funding of the arts is at such a low ebb, it's encouraging to see that some schools still value the opportunities the arts can provide. Participating students first present their work at their respective high schools, before performing at the Founders' Theatre from November 21-24. "Adolescents need drama," says Coleman. "They need the big feelings, the fierce friendships and loves, the immersion in a world of ideas more profound than song lyrics and popular entertainment. This is the business of adolescents, and Shakespeare is their spokesman."