The Regional Theater That Changed My Habits
Filichia sings the praises of Providence's Trinity Rep and its current production of Copenhagen.
Alas, I've been lax. I hadn't caught a Trinity production in nearly 15 years, since I saw Brian Dennehy do a terrific Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard there. After I moved from Boston to New York in 1977, Trinity in Providence, Rhode Island just wasn't as close anymore. But, just as John Masefield decreed "I must go down to the sea again," I decided that I must go see again what's going on at Trinity Repertory Company -- as the troupe is now known. Given the choice between A Christmas Carol and Copenhagen, I chose the latter. Granted, the play didn't quite do it for me when I saw the Broadway production in 2000. Nuclear physics and I have never been close. But I wanted to give it another chance, and I hoped that Trinity might somehow made it work for me.
Maybe Lola in Damn Yankees has no fond memories of Providence, Rhode Island, but I sure do -- and, as I traveled down Route 95, so many of them came to mind. Anyone remember a female impersonator named Ethyl Eichelberger? Listen, I knew him from Trinity when he was James Eichelberger; that's how far back I go with the company. Back in 1967, when I discovered the three-year old troupe, Trinity Square performed in two venues -- one the Rhode Island School of Design, the other a Methodist Church. The best production The Threepenny Opera I ever saw was staged in the latter space. That's where I also saw Brothers to Dragons, a Robert Penn Warren play that required an earthquake. Somehow, the way artistic director Adrian Hall staged the actors made the entire theater seem to be shaking and falling apart.
But Hall almost always made shows genuinely exciting. Even scheduling such a "commercial musical comedy" as The Grass Harp was an adventurous programming decision. Don't forget, it was still unusual in 1967 for regional theaters to be doing new plays. And here was Hall, only 1,000 days on the job, taking on something inordinately more expensive -- a world premiere musical. Getting Broadway personalities as Elaine Stritch, Barbara Baxley, Carol Bruce, and Carol Brice to come to Providence was pretty impressive, too.Hall liked Herman Melville's Billy Budd novella but didn't like the tired Coxe-Chapman play adaptation. So, in 1969, he and his actors just went out and wrote their own. There was a scene where a man had to be flogged, so Hall had an actor face us with his shirt removed, had him extend his arms wide, then had each arm tied with a rope that extended to the wings. Another actor took out a cat o' nine tails and gave the victim 20 severe lashes, the sound of which -- not to mention the actor's agony -- I can still remember to this day. (I later asked Hall about this: He said they had an actor in the company who genuinely liked being whipped, but I do believe he was kidding me.)
A real resident company of actors was what Trinity had: A performer would have the lead in one play and be a spear-carrier in another. As the years went by, I had the pleasure of opening a program and seeing names I had come to know. There was Richard Kneeland as Oscar Wilde in a most moving play called Feasting on Panthers. Marguerite Lenert as Mrs. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth, whom I can still picture getting rid of the woolly mammoth on her front lawn with a mildly annoyed, high-pitched "Shoo! Shoo!" -- sounding much as if she were ridding a fly from her kitchen. Cynthia Strickland in Tom Jones, a wild and lusty musical version of the Fielding novel with music by Barbara (Quilters) Damashek that I can still sing for you today, 29 years after its premiere. (I saw it twice, because once was not enough.) William Damkoehler in a play by Julie Bovasso, better known as John Travolta's mother in Saturday Night Fever. The play was called Down by the River Where Waterlilies Are Disfigured Every Day, and the title alone suggests what an edgy company this was.
There was William Cain in Wilson in the Promised Land, which criticized Woodrow Wilson's administration. The 1969 production moved to Broadway in 1970, a time when such regional theater transfers were exceptional. It ran but a few performances -- partly because it opened during the last week of May, partly because it must have played differently in the ANTA (now the Virginia) than at the intimate Rhode Island School of Design Theatre, and partly because it wasn't Broadway fare.
Hall and Trinity rarely embraced Broadway hits; when they did, it was something like The Homecoming. But the company would rescue a hit from yesteryear, like George M. Cohan's Seven Keys to Baldpate. Otherwise, it was rarely seen work that they focused on. Did you know James Joyce wrote a play called Exiles? I wouldn't know that, either, if it weren't for Trinity. But adventurous new plays were Hall's preference. Only 15 months after the Tate-LoBianco murders -- in November 1970 -- he mounted a play about Charles Manson called Son of Man and Family. Try selling that to your average subscriber while the murders were still hot news! Sure, some were offended, but a great majority of Providence theatergoers had learned to trust Hall by that point and went along for the ride.
In the late '60s, Hall was anxiously looking for his own theater, and I was proud of him for being resourceful enough to buy the ANTA-Washington Square Theatre -- the prefabricated house in which Lincoln Center performed downtown until its uptown home was built. Hall had it shipped to Providence, though he never re-erected it; he wound up doing something far most constructive and evocative. Today, many a regional theater plops itself in a long-dormant movie palace in a distressed area of downtown and transforms the venue and the neighborhood. Trinity did that way back in 1973, when it reclaimed the Majestic Theater and whittled two performance spaces out of it.
I'll always be grateful to Trinity for showing me that regional theater had its own type of excitement, totally different from the kind I experienced on Broadway or in Boston tryouts. Within months of my discovering this theater, I was in my Pontiac on Route 95, scouting out Hartford Stage, the Long Wharf in New Haven, the Philadelphia Theatre of the Living Arts, Center Stage in Baltimore, and the Arena Stage in Washington. I saw plenty of good things along the way, some of them life-changing, none of which I would have experienced had it not been for Adrian Hall and Trinity.
Hall left in 1989. After a few fits and starts with new artistic directors, Oskar Eustis got the job and seems to have found a home. The man who jump-started Angels in America to its success was now staging Copenhagen. I arrived and the lobby afforded me a trip down Memory Lane, for it was adorned with a window card of a terrific Emperor Henry IV and another celebrating the 1975-76 season, in which the Two Gentlemen of Verona musical was produced. (Hall fooled around with that one, too; among other things, he added Queen Elizabeth as a character.) Best of all, in its own case was the richly deserved 1981 Tony Award.
I went to scan the cast list for Copenhagen, hoping that an old-timer from my heyday would be in the cast. There wasn't. But how wonderful to see William Damkoehler and Cynthia Strickland in A Christmas Carol, still on duty and, I hope, doing as wonderful work as they ever did.
I entered what was the Playhouse, now called the Dowling Theatre. I immediately knew I'd like the Trinity production more than the Broadway one, for the seven-row, semi-circular auditorium really seemed to be a genuine student lecture hall. Beyond the 300 seats was a college classroom set, complete with blackboards. Already there was Niels Bohr writing on the blackboard, and -- significantly, on a ladder at a higher blackboard -- Werner Heisenberg. In between (how fitting!) was Bohr's wife Margrethe, sitting, with her back to us and pecking out a storm at a typewriter. I also liked the detail that the wastebasket was filled to the brim with crumpled papers. High above them and the audience were the type of white-globed lights that all of us had over our heads in venerable high school and college classrooms. Best of all, to add to the ambiance of a real lecture, Eustis kept the house lights up for the entire performance. (This was, incidentally, a real boon for us critics who like to take notes.)
What pleased me most was that, in choosing this play, Eustis made a daring decision. After all, Copenhagen opened on Broadway in April 2000 and closed in January 2001 -- eight months before the terrorist attacks. It's so much eerier now, with lines like "You have no idea when bombs are dropped on a city," especially during these weeks when the North Koreans have been talking a great deal about nuclear weapons. How nice to see that Trinity hasn't lost its edge.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]