The name of Mark A. Shugoll and his Bethesda-based market research company, Shugoll Research, were misspelled in a Style story on Tuesday. (Published 10/01/99)
A couple of years ago, actor-director Michael Russotto began incubating the idea of setting Shakespeare's tricky comedy-drama "Measure for Measure" in 1960s Georgia. "What I was looking for was a setting that would illuminate the play for a contemporary audience," he said last week.
In his "Measure for Measure," class differences and questions of justice in Elizabethan England morph into racial and class differences and questions of justice in the civil-rights-era American South. A co-production of WSC and the Actors' Theatre of Washington, it runs at the Washington Shakespeare Company's Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington through Oct. 10.
"I do think there are a lot of racial issues in Washington, and [the '60s are] a time . . . removed enough that I could sort of hint at that without having to set it in a modern city where I felt the play just wouldn't work as well," Russotto said.
The set, created by Holly Beck, implies a decaying sort of plantation house, with trees dripping real Spanish moss--sent in trash bags from Georgia by the mother of a cast member and then flameproofed. The cast uses Southern accents of all social strata to speak Shakespeare's lines meter for meter. Russotto told actor Christopher Janson, playing the doofus constable Elbow, to "think Barney Fife."
Dramaturge Cam Magee helped Russotto edit the text to keep the story afloat for 1999 attention spans. Magee, an actress and longtime member of the Folger Shakespeare Library's in-the-schools touring company, has become a trusted trimmer of Shakespeare for directors like Russotto, Joe Banno and Delia Taylor. And she's gutsy with her red pencil: "I have a great reverence for Shakespeare and no reverence at the same time. . . . I'll worship him and I'll just cut whatever lines we don't need right out of him."
The first Shakespeare play Magee ever saw was "Richard II" at the Old Globe in San Diego, one of the stops during her Navy childhood. She heard the soliloquy that begins, "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories about the death of kings," and she marveled. "I had never seen an audience listening so intently to an actor," she said. "It was like the quiet was sacred. It left a profound impression on me."
SHE ACED 'CHEMISTRY'
In the so-far-out-it's-almost-in comedy "The Chemistry of Change" at Round House, Helen Hedman plays the monstrous Lee, a bossy matriarch, nine times married and the mother of four middle-aged children. They all reside with her, their lives in arrested development, thanks to Mumsy's cutting words and octopus arms. Lee makes ends meet by divorcing husbands and running a little abortion business on the side.
No one told the elegant, flame-haired Hedman that to play the 55-year-old character she had to look old or the least bit haggard, though playwright Marlane Meyer indicates that Lee began having babies at 15. So Hedman went for the minimalist effect--"a little less Erace around the eyes," but everything else stylishly intact.
"She's a frightening person to explore; her journey was a departure from what I had been doing," said Hedman, indulging in wild understatement in a phone interview. Known to Washington audiences for her delicately rendered roles in the plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw at Washington Stage Guild and the Shakespeare Theatre and in contemporary plays at Olney Theatre Center, she jumped at the chance to tackle Lee.
"I read this play in American Theater [magazine] last year, and I read the line referring to her son, Baron: 'He's not a drunk; he's Swedish. If he were in Europe, he'd be the life of the party.' And I just howled. Here's a woman who's a master of denial," Hedman said. She loved the juxtapositions in Meyer's play--"that broadsword effect of a comedy, and yet the rapier work with the character development."
Learning to like her character was nearly as tough as playing her. "I just never thought I could get close to Lee, because she is so nasty . . . but I really feel for this woman; I'm glad she has a happy ending." Actually, she falls for a guy who might just be the Devil, horns and all. In the left-field world of "The Chemistry of Change," that's a formula for bliss.
COME HERE OFTEN?
The League of Washington Theatres is about to launch a comprehensive survey of local audiences. Thirty-three professional theaters will participate, distributing questionnaires at selected performances through October and again in January-February. That's to get an accurate cross-section of attendees, from regular subscribers to walk-ins, from older audiences to younger.
Inspired by a similar project for Broadway and off-Broadway theaters in 1997, Shugall Research founder Mark A. Shugall said, the survey will help theaters discover who isn't coming to see their work, so they can aim their marketing at specific groups. "Some theaters think they've done a better job attracting younger audiences. We'll tell them if that's true or not," said Shugall, whose firm created the questionnaire at a two-thirds discount, with costs partially funded by a grant from the Agnes and Eugene E. Meyer Foundation.
The Shakespeare Theatre's Beth Hauptle, the league's treasurer, said one purpose of the survey is to show that Washington area theaters are willing to share information to help increase all their audiences--"to say to the world that we're a mature theater community that works together."
A smaller theater, such as Source, Woolly Mammoth or the Washington Stage Guild, would have to pay nearly $15,000 for such a study on its own, Shugall estimated during a league meeting in the Shakespeare Theatre's lobby last Friday.
Nine-thousand little bitty pencils have been taped to the questionnaires, so no one who finds one on his seat will have an excuse not to fill it out. Still, Shugall said, a 50 percent response is typical. The results will be released in May.
* Cherry Red Productions will offer a pay-what-you-can preview tonight of its popular gross-out comedy from last season, Billy Bermingham's "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack," 8 p.m. at the Metro Cafe, 1522 14th St. NW. Call 202-675-3071.
* Catherine Irwin, former director of development for Arena Stage, has become managing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Irwin replaces Chris Kuser, who left CATF to take a fellowship at the American Film Institute's producer program in Los Angeles.
* Actor Bill Largess, who'll be directing T.S. Eliot's "The Confidential Clerk" for Stage Guild, has learned through Internet research that the writer and the play are favorites of--honest--pop music sensation Ricky Martin. E-mailed Largess, "We're trying to figure out how to get the word to all those fans who'll make their parents bring them to the show."
CAPTION: Taunya Martin and Christopher Marino measure up in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," set in 1960s Georgia and playing at WSC's Clark Street Playhouse.
CAPTION: Stephen F. Schmidt and Helen Hedman in "The Chemistry of Change," at Round House.