On Monday evening, Blake Robison, artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, announced the shows he has selected for the theater’s 2016-2017 season. In an earlier conversation about the 10 works to be presented, Robison told me why he’s excited about the coming year. “This hits all the programming areas that we talk about a lot,” he says, referencing family-friendly productions, new works and a diverse array of playwrights.
For his fifth season in Cincinnati, six of the 10 productions are by women or artists of color. Robison has included a Pulitzer Prize winner, a work by America’s greatest African-American playwright, a couple of classics, two world premieres and some shows that touch on important contemporary issues.
He’s particularly pleased that the shows he’s programmed for the Robert S. Marx Stage “have some degree of name recognition. But the season is not watered down — we haven’t resorted to ‘cotton-candy’ programming. We’re leaning forward and doing some very challenging work, but it has a popular flair. From the beginning I said that I wanted to be sure that our programming was both artistically challenging and hugely popular. That seems like it should be an easy thing, but it’s actually one of the hardest. I think this season has come the closest to that goal.”
The Marx season opens with an adaptation of John Irving’s popular 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Sept. 3-Oct. 1). A work that explores friendship, destiny and faith, it’s a show that Robison staged with memorable success a decade ago at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., where he was artistic director before Cincinnati. “It’s a beautiful, imaginative, resonant story,” he says. “The search for meaning, personal faith and true things, above and beyond organized religion, is interesting to people these days.”
Next will be August Wilson’s Jitney (Oct. 15-Nov. 12), one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” chronicling African-American life during the 20th century. The story of men operating an unlicensed car service in Pittsburgh has never been staged in Cincinnati. Playhouse Associate Artist Timothy Douglas, one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson’s work in America today, will direct it.
Following the 26th annual production of A Christmas Carol, the Playhouse will present Little Shop of Horrors (Jan. 21-Feb. 19), a campy off-Broadway show about a man-eating plant that became a Broadway hit (and a movie) in the 1980s. (The Playhouse produced it in 1987.) “I just love this show.” Robison says. It’s no longer touring, and he promises “a high-level treatment” by guest director Bill Fennelly, who helped make Jersey Boys a hit. “When we did Ring of Fire in 2015,” says Robison, “we discovered that something fun and peppy and innately populist fits in January.”
From populism to the classics is the path he’s taking for the season’s final productions on the mainstage — an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s romantic novel Jane Eyre (March 11-April 8) and Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (April 22-May 20). The latter is an amusing adaptation in the same vein as the hilarious production of The 39 Steps, using five actors to play numerous roles and hurtle through a familiar tale.
The Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage is where more adventurous works are offered. The season kicks off with Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced (Sept. 24-Oct. 23), a dinner party on New York City’s Upper East Side hosted by a Muslim-American attorney with friends and colleagues that melts down around identity, religion and politics. “It’s the Playhouse’s responsibility to ensure that our audiences can enjoy these huge award-winning plays,” Robison explains. “ You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to see them. It’s going to be fantastic in the Shelterhouse. We’ve intentionally chosen to put this pressure cooker in the Shelterhouse and turn up the heat.”
Every holiday season the Playhouse seeks an alternative to its lovely traditional production of A Christmas Carol. This year’s show should be especially attractive: The Second City’s Holidazed & Confused Revue (Nov. 5-Dec. 31). It promises to be a hilarious evening of its skits that send up Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and everything in between, performed by talent from the legendary Chicago comedy club.
In the New Year, Robison has lined up two more world premieres, again featuring up-and-coming female playwrights. Arlitia Jones’s Summerland (Feb. 4-March 5) is about a “spirit photographer,” inspired by a man who took haunting images of the dead in the era just after the Civil War. That will be followed by Jen Silverman’s All the Roads Home (March 25-April 23), the story of three generations of women and the legacies they inherit across the latter half of the 20th century.
The Shelterhouse season wraps up with a one-woman show, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End (May 6-June 4), a portrait of the Dayton, Ohio, housewife whose newspaper columns gave voice to ordinary women everywhere. “This show is just an absolute stitch,” says Robison. “It had a very successful run at Arena Stage in Washington last spring, and we got it immediately because of the Ohio connection. It’s the perfect vehicle to send people into summer with a smile.”
As Robison said, it sounds easy to assemble an artistically challenging and popular season, but it’s truly a tough task. It would appear that he’s done it for 2016-2017. “I think this season has come the closest to that goal,” he says.
The box office is the true gauge, but the season certainly looks promising.