I still draw occasional blank stares when I recommend Know Theatre of Cincinnati to people who say they care about good theater. I'm surprised, because the fearless company has been around for a decade.
But Know operated under the radar for a long time, performing cutting-edge work in a church basement in Over-the-Rhine. Two years ago they moved to their own facility at 1120 Jackson St., where they can present more professional productions of plays other theaters aren't ready to undertake. They opened their new space in 2006 with In the Blood, a work by African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.
In the weeks ahead, they'll present another script by Parks, her 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner, Topdog/Underdog.
It will be presented in a rotating schedule through March 2 with Red Light Winter, a 2006 Pulitzer finalist by Adam Rapp, another writer whose work is increasingly admired. (Cincinnati Shakespeare presented his solo work, Nocturne, in 2002.) Topdog opens Jan. 31, while Red Light debuts Feb. 8.
Richard Hess, head of the drama program at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, is staging Topdog. He loves the show's challenge "because of the language and the story" -- a tale of two brothers, Lincoln (Derek Snow) and Booth (Todd Patterson). One is a petty thief; the other is a card shark trying to do better by impersonating Abraham Lincoln at a shooting arcade. The thief wants to learn more about card-sharking.
It's a mundane tale, but Hess calls it "the nightly news from the human side." He adds, "This play is a lean machine. It's so spare: two brothers in a room. They just fester and exist together. It's a relationship that's real, inevitable and heartbreaking."
Hess has a flair for contemporary work, and he's not afraid to take risks; several experimental works he's staged for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival (an annual event produced by Know Theatre) have earned favor with critics and audiences.
Eric Vosmeier, Know's associate artistic director, is staging Red Light Winter, a story of two college friends from America (Anthony Darnell and Vandit Bhatt) who find themselves in Amsterdam; one is celebrating life, the other is on the verge of suicide. They meet a troubled young woman (Anne Marie Carroll), and their lives change irreversibly.
Vosmeier says the play has a lot of things going for it. "The way the relationships are drawn between the three characters in this love triangle is fascinating," he notes, saying it's told in strangely parallel ways from the first act to the second. "His dialogue is some of the best I've worked with, very naturalistic. There's nothing stilted about it. If flows so perfectly."
Rapp is almost 40; Parks is 43. They're contemporary American playwrights who address issues in the here and now.
Hess says, "These stories break your heart and illuminate the characters' lives." That's what great theater is about. Info: www.knowtheatre.com.
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