What’s New Onstage? What’s Popular?

Cincinnati has a theater scene that’s surprisingly sophisticated for a city this size.

click to enlarge Venus in Fur
Venus in Fur

Cincinnati has a theater scene that’s surprisingly sophisticated for a city this size. Local theaters present hit plays, often well before they are produced in larger cities. American Theatre magazine compiles an annual list of the season’s most-produced shows at 404 theaters, where a total of 1,876 plays will be produced during 2014-2015. (The list excludes works by Shakespeare as well as holiday works such as A Christmas Carol and The Santaland Diaries.) The good news is that, thanks to our local theaters, many of these plays have already been staged locally or will be soon.

Heading up the list is Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2013 Tony Award-winning comic riff on plays by Anton Chekhov. The Cincinnati Playhouse is one of 27 regional theaters staging it this season (its four-week run starts March 12, 2015). In second place with 10 productions is John Patrick Shanley’s romantic comedy Outside Mullingar, scheduled for Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati next May.

Two works are getting eight productions. One is Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, about a dysfunctional family of egos that had 13 productions a year ago. One of those was ETC’s season opener in September 2013. It will be staged by eight more theaters this season. The other is Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, not being staged locally.

Four shows are tied with seven productions, including Rick Elice’s award-winning Peter and the Starcatcher, a charming prequel to Peter Pan. The Playhouse presents it in March 2015. Another show being staged at seven theaters is Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man. ETC was one of the first theaters to produce the show (January-February 2013) following its Broadway run. The story of one-time slaves marking Passover in a demolished mansion at the end of the Civil War is on the most-produced list for the third straight year. 

ETC’s D. Lynn Meyers’ skill at landing new plays and giving them memorable productions means local theatergoers were also among the first to see Nina Raine’s Tribes, a story of philosophical warfare in a family with a deaf son, which received 12 productions last season and gets seven more this season. 

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, about a generational bridge between a feisty grandmother and her troubled adult grandson, is getting six productions during 2014-2015. It was popular last season, too, when the Cincinnati Playhouse staged it late last winter, one of 22 regional productions.

David Ives’ witty comedy about erotic warfare, Venus in Fur, led the 2013-2014 list with 22 productions, including one that titillated Playhouse audiences in April-May 2014. It’s getting six more productions this season. The third show being staged six times is well known: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairytale mash-up Into the Woods, the oldest show on the list and the only musical. It’s possibly attracting attention because it will be released as a major motion picture with a starry cast in December.

What’s the take-away? On the plus side, we’re seeing many of the best works of contemporary theater on Cincinnati stages. Blake Robison, artistic director at the Playhouse, says it’s part of his theater’s mission to give local theater lovers excellent productions of the best new plays. At ETC, D. Lynn Meyers works at a similar task (with a tighter budget), and she does an admirable job of getting rights to stage shows sooner than many theaters around the country. It’s what her audiences have come to expect. 

From another angle, however, this list reveals that many theaters stage their own productions at considerable one-time expense. The Playhouse occasionally partners with other regional theaters — this season’s Peter and the Starcatcher (March 2015) is a co-production with Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and Durang’s Vanya/Sonia is shared with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. These behind-the-scenes decisions serve to reduce expenses and give actors extended employment. 

The other question raised by this duplication is the impact of multiple stagings of hits on the opportunity to develop new works. Must a show make it in New York City before it’s “certified” for regional theaters to pick it up? 

The Playhouse has an admirable record of advancing new works: It just finished presenting Safe House by Cincinnati native Keith Josef Adkins, the 71st premiere staged there. Let’s hope that it (or Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Abigail/1702, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Leveling Up, Martín Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun or Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship, all premiered in recent Playhouse seasons) might find its way to other theaters’ subsequent seasons and onto future lists published in American Theatre.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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