Fall Arts Issue
Published: September 14, 2011
This is no time for fluff.
Even when it comes to weekend theater and a night on the town.
Mother Nature's throwing a fit, we're on the verge of another recession, campaign season's upon us and it's filled with moralizing yahoos and Congress is repugnantly stagnant.
But the political climate in 1880s Norway mirrors America today. Bear with me.
Like our current Congress, theirs was unstable and highly partisan. But the Norwegian liberals had the gusto to file a historic impeachment case against representatives of the far right Christian conservative government for infringing on the separation of powers — the same principle behind the separation of church and state, which if scrutinized would take large issue with the proclivity of scripture informing, oh, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann's platform.
Both "separations" are based on the ancient Greek trias politica foundation of governance. Which used to mean something in the Western world.
The consequence of such extremism is under review in a rare production of Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece Rosmersholm from the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company in Detroit. Freud dug it enough to write an essay about the female lead.
Since 2006, Magenta Giraffe has been operating from a small space at 1515 Broadway. And its founder, Frannie Shepard-Bates (who's sister to the prolific young music man Jesse Shepard-Bates) is intent on reviving the district with quality contemporary productions.
I recently had a conversation with the lady of the house. We spoke about this curious season opener, the casting process, our city's theatric energy, and Freud.
Metro Times: Henrik Ibsen is, more or less, responsible for crafting the modern drama form, right? I think I've seen A Doll's House (originally performed in 1879 at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark). What can you tell us you know about this Ibsen guy?
Frannie Shepard-Bates: Ibsen's plays, especially A Doll's House, are widely regarded as some of the best pieces of theater ever to be written and produced. His plays dealt with contemporary issues in a naturalistic way when most plays did not. His primary focus on characters, rather than plot, and his not-so-subtle views on often-contentious issues, earned him negative attention at the same time he was being hailed as a master dramatist.
MT: Your season opener, Rosmersholm, is a rarely performed Ibsen play. How did you discover it?
Shepard-Bates: I was searching for plays for the upcoming season, and I thought maybe we ought to produce a classic. I was looking through my collection of Ibsen's plays when this one popped out at me — I'd never heard of or noticed it before. It requires only six actors, which makes it affordable for our limited budget. Once I read it, I realized how amazing it is. We had to do it.
MT: What's your research process like? How do you pick the season's plays?
Shepard-Bates: I read a lot of plays, and I read a lot of reviews of plays in newspapers and online. I'm always looking for new material, as well as exploring older plays that seem like they'd be a good fit for us. My decisions hinge on how well plays fit our mission and whether there's a chance they could start a discussion about eliminating apathy, violence, prejudice or some education barrier. I'm also thinking about whether or not they'll bring an audience, which is important for re-establishing and expanding Detroit's theater district.
MT: How does Rosmersholm set the tone for the 2010 season? And what can you tell us about the season's other two plays?
Shepard-Bates: Rosmersholm sets the tone in that, as usual, we approach our productions very seriously — even the comedies. We're not about producing fluff. Each play largely deals with politics of one kind or another, and all of them denounce certain aspects of politics. The Altruists centers around characters who are political hypocrites and The Maids has much to do with classism.
MT: One of Rosmersholm's themes concerns the social inflictions caused by blind political and religious radicalism. Does that motif function in a way that at all mirrors our nation's radical political mouthpieces culture?
Shepard-Bates: One of the first things that struck me about this play is how relevant it is to our current political climate in the U.S. No matter the time or location, extreme politics destroys relationships and puts blinders on otherwise reasonable people. And it is true now, politicians on the extreme right and left rally people behind them, people who do not always have objective political viewpoints.
> Email Travis R. Wright