“Backstage Theatre Company continues to excel in creating memories for theatergoers that are definitely unforgettable.”
January 1st, 1970
We are often fascinated by the story of who our parents were before they had children since it is essentially how we came to exist. It helps us understand the lives of the most influential people in your life, and it guides us in our own quest for love and self definition. This idea played a large role in Backstage Theatre Company’s Memory, their impressive first play of their season. Other times these stories, as is the case in Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain (known to many theatergoers as the play Julia Roberts flatly debuted in on Broadway), can be a great mystery to obsess upon for years. The overriding mystery is what binds six fascinating characters together played by three actors. Artistic Director Matthew Reeder’s direction in this Backstage production is strikingly human, intimate and traipses through these characters’ lives like a lone jazz trumpet traveling through time accompanied by well-suited recordings of Miles Davis doing the real thing.
In present day downtown Manhattan (or maybe more so the mid-90’s if you really do the math on years referenced) we meet Walker (John Henry Roberts) in ppa sparse spacious apartment. He is intellectual, searching and a narcissist. After disappearing in Italy his family had thought him dead. More specifically, his sister Nan (Rebekah Ward-Hays) and his old friend Pip (Tony Bozzuto) thought so. Upon finding his recently deceased father’s journal, Walker attempts to decipher the cryptic seemingly commonplace entries. Walker believes that his parents “married because by 1960 they had reached a certain age and they were the last ones left in the room.” Nan struggles with Walker’s return and his obsession with their father’s journal. Pip, a soap-opera star, has history with Nan, and Walker was – or still is – in love with him, causing interesting tension when any combination of the three of them is on stage.
Walker and Nan’s father Ned (also played by Roberts) was a great architect, or at least built one impressive house. Pip is the son of their father’s partner, Theo. In the second act Bozzuto, Roberts and Ward-Hays all take on the roles of their parents in the 1960’s. Greenberg’s writing is smart in how it takes certain words or phrases you hear in the first act and sprinkles them in the second act, showing you the roots of these ultimately poetic characters in linguistic parallels. We bear witness to all that Walker, Nan and Pip could not possibly know even if the stories were retold or handed down. They would have changed as all stories do through the course of history. Nevertheless, a few small words which Ned (Walker and Nan’s father) writes down carries all the weight in the world for each character involved in this play. Even if the meaning of those words died with Ned, they still have impacted the lives of these people profoundly whether the truth is known or not.
The performances of these six difficult characters to play are worthy. The hurdle is portraying two different characters that are clueless to what the other knows and yet finding the connection between them. John Henry Roberts was stiff at times on opening night and hit an occasional false note as Walker at first, but he eventually relaxed into the role and became fascinating during the ritual that ends the act. As Walker’s father, Ned, he brings a very different character to the stage that is vivacious and electric to watch. Ward-Hays is magnificent in her balance of anger and love as Nan, and then in her dreamier and more sexually charged performance as Lina. Bozzuto is dynamic displaying an exciting capability for detailed physical choices.
Reeder makes a brilliant choice opening the second act by allowing the characters of Theo and Ned to spend the first couple minutes transforming the space in front of our eyes, bringing life into the abandoned apartment and turning it into an invigorating Manhattan architectural workspace of the 1960’s. It’s the same apartment as in the first act, but the makeover of the room is akin to time travel. Brandon Wardell’s set fills the Viaduct space perfectly, and his lighting on the windows does wonders to create the ambiance of the physical and emotional setting.
Greenberg’s non-linear storytelling is thought-provoking as only we, the audience, know the true gravitas of the words, “Three days of rain,” which Ned enters into his journal. However, perhaps this is the nature of history; it can never be retold exactly, nor needs to be. Walker and Nan come to their own necessary closure with their parents’ ambiguous history, and their father took his memories to the grave. What’s clear is that Backstage Theatre Company continues to excel in creating memories for theatergoers that are definitely unforgettable.
- Jason Rost, Chicago Theatre Blog
“BackStage has proven itself one of the storefront scene’s more reliably eclectic producers . . . a standard-bearer for quality and innovation on a budget.”
January 1st, 1970
Steppenwolf gets the well-deserved glory as the great success story of the 1970s Off Loop–theater movement—the company and its ensemble members are now serving as Chicago theater’s ambassadors to Broadway, after all, having racked up seven nominations for this Sunday’s Tony Awards.
But the kids in the suburban basement weren’t the only ones redefining Chicago’s theater scene in the ’70s. Stuart Gordon’s Organic Theater Company was one of the more reliably eclectic producers, applying its decidedly DIY ethic to everything from the trippy sci-fi–and–macramé Warp trilogy to a tiny little world premiere called Sexual Perversity in Chicago.
The Organic in its heyday was an incubator of splashy comic-book theater, where the answer to “Why?” was pretty much “Why not?” One of the early ensemble-created shows was William Norris and John Ostrander’s 1974 entry, Bloody Bess—a swashbuckling, stunt-filled play about an English noblewoman’s transformation into a vengeful pirate captain. The homegrown bit of Chicago theater history gets a revival this week thanks to BackStage Theatre Company, and the Organic callback seems appropriate. Over its eight-year history, BackStage has proven itself (wait for it) one of the storefront scene’s more reliably eclectic producers, with a decidedly DIY ethic.
We’re not suggesting that BackStage is the new Organic, exactly; the companies’ aesthetics and missions are quite different. But as a standard-bearer for quality and innovation on a budget, BackStage evokes Organic’s scrappy spirit.
That scrappiness is evidenced by the fact the company even made it past its first year. It was founded in 2000 by Amy Monday and Janette Benton, both late of the now-defunct Boxer Rebellion Theater; Benton departed before the end of the debut season. Undaunted, Monday called on another Boxer Rebellion friend, actor Melissa Young, to pick up the reins as artistic director, in a selection process Monday describes as “Hey, would you do me a favor?”
With Young as artistic director and Monday as managing director, BackStage put together its initial ensemble and worked on emphasizing the importance of all theatrical disciplines, with ensemble members pulling double and triple duty on- and offstage. Even their board chair did everything from production management to lighting design.
The content on stage at this point perhaps reflected the scattered attention of artists doing so many jobs; the material ranged from gay comedy to Shakespeare to the ensemble-generated cabaret Everything’s Sexy. But the company was gaining a following and, with it, an increased workload. When Young stepped down in 2003 to pursue grad school, BackStage hired Brandon Bruce as artistic director.
Under Bruce’s tenure, the itinerant company strengthened its reputation for what he liked to call “doing big things in small spaces,” with sharp ensemble work in pieces like Denise Druczweski’s Inferno and The Skin of Our Teeth. After a couple of years, though, Bruce too was ready to step down and go the MFA route. But he had a replacement in mind.
BODY AND SOUL Rebekah Ward-Hayes and Andy Baldeschwiler have it out in the company’s 2007 Waiting for Lefty.
At the 2006 non-Equity Jeffs, where Jason Kae was picking up the directing award for Infamous Commonwealth’s Kentucky Cycle (which he and Genevieve Thompson codirected), Bruce floated the idea. “He said, ‘I’m leaving the company; can I submit your name to be artistic director?’ ” Kae recalls. The 32-year-old Elk Grove Village native, an alum of downstate Millikin University, had a slew of freelance directing gigs under his belt but no administrative experience and was interested in the prospect of an artistic home. A résumé, three letters of rec and four interviews later, he had the job. (Monday wryly notes the process has gotten slightly more formal.)
“When I came on board, I wanted to focus up our mission statement,” Kae says. “Being where I was in my life”—he became a new daddy last fall—“I thought, nobody’s really exploring family. Not ‘family theater,’ but the idea of family in society, whether that’s mom and dad or the work family or what have you.” The ensemble members, many of whom have kids of their own, went for it.
Bess closes Kae’s first season, following stellar revivals of Waiting for Lefty and How I Learned to Drive, each certainly a “family play” in its way. The BackStage family, for its part, has already—several times over—crossed the management-change hurdle that proved too much for Organic, which never really recovered from Gordon’s departure in the mid ’80s.
“Having worked for a lot of companies, I saw that a lot of times the company hinges on the artistic director,” Kae says, “and when that artistic director goes away or has a breakdown or decides to pursue other things, the company falls apart.” For BackStage, things just keep falling together.
- Kris Vire, Time Out Chicago
Jeff Citation Nomination – Outstanding Ensemble 2008 Jeff Citation Nomination – Rebekah Ward-Hays – Actress in a Supporting Role 2008
Jeff Citation – Rebekah Ward-Hays – Outstanding Actress in a Principal Role – 2006
Jeff Citation Nomination – Melissa Riemer – Actress in a Supporting Role – 2006