Not many theaters have been led by an artistic director for more than a decade. The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has had Ed Stern as its producing artistic director for nearly two. He’ll end his run in June 2012, completing his 20th season. Stern recently announced the shows for his final season at the Tony Award-winning regional theater.
I remember visiting with Stern in 1991 about his first season, chosen carefully as he coped with the fallout from some erratic, prior management and a tight budget. Stern found ways to make it work; his mix of tried-and-true with a steady stream of new offerings culminated in a 50th anniversary in 2009-2010, with half the season consisting of new works. From that season, David Bar Katz’s The History of Invulnerability is a finalist for the American Theatre Critics annual Steinberg prize.
So what goes into a “final” season? Stern has no strict formula. He’s chosen some past crowd-pleasers, added a smattering of new plays and is presenting a brand-new work, a world premiere by a Cincinnati playwright, commissioned by the Playhouse.
The Marx Theatre will begin with two recent Tony Award winners, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage and John Logan’s Red. Carnage, about two sets of battling parents, took home a best play Tony in 2009; Stern will direct it.
Red, a piece about the ambition and vulnerability of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, was the Tony winner last June.
Stern, who revealed recently that he’s battling pancreatic cancer, is answering that challenging condition by throwing himself into creative work. He will also co-direct the season opener in the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse, Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He staged Othello there in 2007 with great results and he plans to bring that intimacy to a great romantic comedy, working with Associate Artistic Director Michael Haney.
A Christmas Carol returns for its 21st season in December. The Shelterhouse will offer another favorite, Always … Patsy Cline, in a two-month run. Stern says it’s a show his wife loves — as did many others when it was a hit in 2000 and 2003.
Cincinnati writer Theresa Rebeck has had several well-received plays at the Playhouse (Bad Dates, The Understudy). For January 2012, Stern has commissioned her to write a new script, Dead Accounts, full of Cincinnati references as a guy comes back to town, perhaps escaping some serious matters elsewhere.
Another Playhouse favorite returning for Stern’s final season is British director John Doyle, who struck gold with Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 2006, a show that moved from Cincinnati to Broadway and a Tony award. In March 2012 he’ll stage another Sondheim piece, Merrily We Roll Along, again using performers who act and play musical instruments.
A third returning favorite will be playwright and director Keith Glover for Thunder Knocking on the Door next spring. The 1999 show, the best-selling musical of Stern’s tenure, has a bluesy score, mostly by songwriter Keb’ Mo’, and a magical tale about a guitar duel. It should be a hit again with Glover’s new production.
Two intriguing shows, Andrew Bovell’s psychological noir thriller Speaking in Tongues and Kim Rosenstock’s dark comedy Tigers Be Still will be Shelterhouse productions in 2012. And Stern — who has a hearty sense of humor — will induce more smiles with a quick return by Second City, the satirical improv troupe that kept audiences laughing during the 2010 holidays with Pride and Porkopolis. The group’s early summer 2012 Shelterhouse piece, Less Pride … More Pork, could have a long run if audiences are interested.
Selling tickets and entertaining audiences — that’s been Ed Stern’s winning M.O. for 20 seasons.
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