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The Next Stage

By Rick Pender · October 15th, 2008 · Curtain Call

The Cincinnati Playhouse’s Marx Theatre resembled a boxing ring on Oct. 6. The foundation for a new set was a roped-off floor of raw plywood. And combat was on the minds of many in the crowd of 250 at a town hall meeting about the Playhouse’s need for a different kind of facility. Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern and Playhouse Board President Jack Rouse spoke.

Stern cited the obvious limitations of the naked Marx stage: no wings, minimal backstage, no space overhead to “fly” scenery. Designers have expressed disdain, including David Gallo, whose set for Company was eventually nominated for a 2008 Tony Award. Asked in 2003 by American Theatre magazine, “Do you have a favorite theater, architecturally speaking?” he said, “The greatest regional theater in the country has the worst space: Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.”

Stern talked about acoustical problems, saying many younger theatergoers who sit in the far reaches of the Marx don’t return.

A leaking roof makes public and backstage areas hazardous. He and Rouse made a convincing case for change. Stern, in his 17th season, needs a more flexible proscenium stage; Rouse wants adequate parking.

Changes were explored a few years ago with a likely price tag of $65 million to revamp a building the Playhouse does not (and cannot) own because it’s on land controlled by the Cincinnati Park Board. The best option at hand seems to be downtown near Fountain Square, with attractive amenities like restaurants, clubs and plenty of evening parking. Some other arts organizations might share such a facility, making it a more broadly serviceable project — and more attractive to potential funders.

The envisioned complex, perhaps atop the Fountain Place complex that houses Macy’s or part of a development at the northwest corner of Fifth and Race streets, would include a 650-seat proscenium stage (the Marx seats 626), a 200-seat black box (to replace the Shelterhouse’s 225) and an auditorium for 1,500 to serve other organizations, especially the Children’s Theatre. Such a complex might host as many as 780 performances annually, serving more than 600,000 people.

Many at the meeting were not swayed. They like the current thrust stage (“It’s good enough for Stratford, Ontario,” one shouted) and they believe leaving Mount Adams will affect the Playhouse’s charm. Several bursts of applause followed outspoken remarks from long-term subscribers and nearby residents about maintaining the status quo.

But Cincinnatians must think about the big picture: Based on arguments about reinforcing the core of our city, our professional sports teams received new stadiums that cost millions. The Playhouse, which has earned national recognition for Cincinnati with two Tony Awards (while our teams wallow in the cellar), needs facilities that match the admirable quality of its onstage work.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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