After four seasons of changing venues, New Stage Collective (NSC) has settled into a permanent home. Opening Thursday is a "family drama," after a fashion, although a very dark one — Edward Albee's 2002 Tony Award winner, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
It's a tale driven by an unsettling event: A man who seems to have everything turns his family upside down because of his obsession with an animal. That's the kind of drama and attention-getting theater NSC and its young artistic director, Alan Patrick Kenny, intend to present.
This show demonstrates NSC's commitment to facilitating the development of pre-professional artists while staging meaningful and rarely performed works. Since its first season in 2003, NSC has presented musicals by Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown and plays by Caryl Churchill, Neil LaBute, David Sedaris and 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire.
Led by Kenny, a 2004 grad of New York University (and a 2000 grad of Sycamore High School), NSC has leapfrogged onto Cincinnati's theater scene with ambitious productions that don't always succeed. But NSC's path has been steadily upward, and with its own facility that course should accelerate.
NSC's three-year lease at 1140 Main St., once home to Jekyll & Hyde's, a billiard hall and bar, appears to be both a catalyst and lucky recipient of a new wave of development in Over-the-Rhine. In fact, it seems that the "Arts T," envisioned and described by CityBeat as far back as 1998, is finally happening.
NSC joins Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (1127 Vine St.) and Know Theatre of Cincinnati (1120 Jackson St.) as part of a neighborhood along OTR's 12th Street where a significant array of options will be available for an evening out.
Brian Tiffany, president of the OTR Chamber of Commerce, says, "These bar spaces have been vacant. What worked in the late '80s and '90s doesn't work anymore. I've been telling people it's a good thing to start from a clean slate, and New Stage is one of the first marks on the slate. This is going to stimulate a lot of activity."
The activity is evident just by glancing out NSC's second-floor windows. Directly across the street is the one-time Jump Café, returning to life as Mixx Ultra-Lounge; around the corner on 13th Street, Neon's is evolving into Jardin Wine and Tapas Bar; and at 13th and Sycamore, The Diner has become Vinyl.
In addition, Ocho Rios will soon open where Club Clau once drew crowds. The former Alchemize is being converted into Below Zero Lounge, a vodka bar. Perhaps the most impressive sign that OTR has reached its tipping point is that renowned Cincinnati restaurateur Jean-Robert de Cavel will open a casual restaurant at 1211 Vine St., just north of ETC, modeled on his Greenup Café in Covington.
With this critical mass of places to eat and drink, it's logical to assume that the neighborhood will increasingly attract people seeking entertainment. NSC is positioning itself to become a top choice for them with a season of productions that should entice "creative class" theatergoers looking for edgy material.
Following Albee's controversial but much admired play and a Fringe Festival show in early June, NSC will present the regional premiere (and only the third U.S. production) of a hip piece about the Rock, Punk and Pop music scene in New York City, Radiant Baby (June 21-July 14). In August, NSC offers Michael John LaChiusa's innovative musical Hello Again (Aug. 2-25); last fall, Kenny music directed another LaChiusa work, See What I Wanna See, for Know Theatre. Rounding out the year will be The Long Christmas Ride Home (Oct. 11-Nov. 3) by Paula Vogel, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her much produced play How I Learned to Drive.
Since moving into NSC's new space in February, Kenny and others have been renovating the physical space to suit their needs. It will accommodate audiences of 120 or so in what Kenny calls "funky, mismatched seating," including bar stools. With a grant from the Fine Arts Fund, NSC has acquired a sophisticated state-of-the-art color-mixing lighting system, making possible what Kenny calls "theater for the iPhone generation."
The young director is fond of making audacious claims: "We are creating an artistic space that defies all expectations of what theater should be, and instead reinvents what theater in Cincinnati should be."
If The Goat is any indication, Kenny could live up to his high standards. He is quick to say that The Goat makes a statement about what NSC wants to be.
"I want to do theater that people will talk about," he says. "The Goat was the one play I saw in New York while I lived there where people did not leave the theater when it was over."
Albee's play takes elements of Greek tragedy and translates them into contemporary life when a family's existence is shattered by a man's obsession. One of Cincinnati's best actors, Brian Isaac Phillips (also artistic director at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company), plays a successful architect who stuns his family by announcing he's fallen in love with a goat. Amy Warner, another award-winner (including a Cincinnati Entertainment Award in 2005 as Martha in another Albee piece, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, at Cincinnati Shakespeare), plays his angry, heartbroken wife. The play will be staged in a corner of NSC's new space, utilizing windows that overlook Main Street.
Kenny relishes the intimacy of his new space.
"Audiences watching The Goat are literally in the room with these characters."
This play, which Albee subtitled "Notes toward a Definition of Tragedy," is about how love can go wrong.
"Albee pushes the envelope," Kenny says, "and twists it into something so provocative we have to react to it. That doesn't happen much in the theater anymore."
If Kenny has his way, it will happen regularly on Main Street in the weeks and months ahead.
THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? will be presented by New Stage Collective. It opens Thursday and continues with performances Thursday through Sunday until May 20.