Keeper of Theatrical Truths | Theater | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

While Broadway seems fiscally robust these days, discerning theatergoers may question the creative health of the Great White Way. As stage production costs soar, show producers have their sights set squarely on the pockets of tourists. Hence, they skew their offerings to the palates of out-of-towners, wooing them by reheating old musical chestnuts and stunt casting that features prominent TV actors.

For those seeking more bracing offerings, an alternative exists here in the Valley. This summer, devotees of the American theater can again choose from a banquet of drama, comedy, and musical offerings featuring high-profile actors and a Manhattan pedigree. For the 28th year, from June 22 to July 29, Vassar College, in collaboration with New York Stage and Film, plays host to the Powerhouse Theater season, a five-week series of readings, new plays, and musicals in development.

For ticket fees far below ruinous Manhattan prices, the public can view emerging works by both seasoned and new playwrights and retain bragging rights for having seen these shows in their larval stage.

This year's schedule showcases six premieres, including new works by playwrights Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa ("Abigail/1702") and Stephen Belber ("The Power of Duff"). Fledgling musicals are "Fortress of Solitude" and "Murder Ballad." Workshop plays include "Fires are Confusing," an examination of the mechanics—and flaws—of the American justice system; "The House That Will Not Stand," about love and law in 1836 New Orleans; plus eight readings of new plays, particularly a musical adaptation of John Knowles's enduring novel A Separate Peace. Students of the classics can savor revivals of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" or "The Comedy of Errors," as well as Euripedes's "Medea."

"Powerhouse is a beautiful place to be a keeper of truths," says Johanna Pfaelzer, the artistic director of New York Stage and Film since 2007. While the annual Powerhouse roster showcases works that possess more bite than most current Broadway shows, Pfaelzer denies a agenda. "We don't set out to be provocative," she says. "[We choose] pieces that are raising big questions. If that feels provocative, then sure, guilty as charged."

Edward Cheetham, producing director for the sixth season in this high-minded summer camp for theater people, observes that Powerhouse attracts a certain caliber of artist. "There is something about what gets done every summer on every level that makes you come back for more." Cheetham says, "and it's not about, If I do this, it will make me famous or [get me] in the New York Times."

Given the vagaries of audience taste and the precarious state of arts funding, presenting at Powerhouse does not guarantee success. Many shows mounted during the past 27 years never found an audience after their Vassar debuts. A rare few, such as John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Doubt" and Warren Leight's "Side Man," leapt from Vassar premiere to Broadway hit and onward into theatrical history. Many Powerhouse tryouts are likely to thrive at prominent regional stages and go no further.

Three participants in Powerhouse 2012—two playwrights and one director—talked about the work involved in bringing their productions up the Hudson to Poughkeepsie.

Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; directed by David Esbjornson.
Performances June 27-July 8

A fan of "The Crucible," the drama about the 17th-century Salem witch trials (and a potent allegory for 1950s Communist mania), Aguirre-Sacasa caught a new staging of the Arthur Miller classic while at Steppenwolf in Chicago. The award-winning playwright "fell in love with the play all over again."

Aguirre-Sacasa became especially intrigued by Abigail Williams, whose fate after the trials is unknown. The mystery "captured my imagination and haunted me," enough to prompt the accomplished writer for stage ("The Mystery Plays," a rewrite of the plagued "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"), TV ("Glee" and "Big Love") and a stint at Marvel Comics, to write a play about the real-life Puritan villainess.

A decade after "The Crucible" sends innocent people to the gallows, Abigail Williams has relocated to Boston to restart her life. But her guilt has followed her. "It was interesting to find a way to redeem that character," Aguirre-Sacasa says. To fuel his historic revisionism, Sacasa delved into the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shares the playwright's affinity for the supernatural and morality tales.

In the role of Abigail is Chloe Sevigny, from the HBO series "Big Love," a comic-drama about Mormon polygamy. Aguirre-Sacasa was convinced that Sevigny was ideal to portray the morally embattled protagonist.

"Abigail/1702" marks a departure from the Yale School of Drama graduate's previous work, he says, but also a logical progression.

"People who know my work say this is very different: 'It's a period piece, it's more serious than your other work.' Then I've heard people say, who really know my work, strangely, 'You're writing about the same things you wrestled with throughout all of your plays: themes about forgiveness and redemption.'"

"The Power of Duff"
Playwright Stephen Belber; directed by Peter DuBois.
Performances July 18-July 29

Stage- and screenwriter Belber originally wrote "The Power of Duff" for film six years ago. The modern-day tale of a cynical, small-town TV anchor who finds God was never produced. However, a producer attached to the project suggested that Belber rewrite it for the stage.

Initially the writer balked. "First I thought that was a sort of silly idea," he says," "so ass-backwards." But Belber decided to accept the assignment, taking the time "to make it a little bit deeper and really a bit more spiritually questing."

A simplistic parody of Bible beaters was of no interest to Belber, whose previous works tackle subjects of both a cerebral intensity and moral complexity. Consider "Tape," a psychological study that became a film by Richard Linklater, as well as Powerhouse productions of Belber's "Geometry of Fire" and "Fault Lines." Charles Duff's religious awakening in the middle of a broadcast is treated soberly; Belber does not reduce the man to a glassy-eyed caricature speaking in tongues.

A philosophy major in college, Belber has "always been interested in the fine line between God and opium or whatever," he says. The screenplay for "Duff" was a serious examination of faith. But when Belber returned to the material, he did so as a more thoughtful individual. "I actually really did have more of a spiritual voyage, I guess. Not just because I'm older—because that would sound really pathetic, that I've become more spiritual just because I'm older. But I took it more seriously and I took the challenge of writing, not just hitting easy targets."

A keen dissector of our public facades, Belber applies his signature style to "The Power of Duff," but the criticism is equally distributed. "I possibly take shots—not at religion, but at the extremities of both people who take themselves too seriously in a proselytizing kind of way and people who are so cynical as to be leaving themselves no choice of spirituality."

"Fortress of Solitude"
Director Daniel Aukin; book by Itamar Moses; music-lyrics by Michael Friedman.
Performances June 29-July 1

Daniel Aukin is more than the director of "Fortress of Solitude"; he is its midwife. When he read the 2003 novel by literary darling Jonathan Lethem, he was inspired by the sprawling semiautobiographical epic about two boys—Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude—growing up on the same block in Brooklyn during the 1970s. He reached out to the author with the idea of a musical "and we began a long conversation that lasted, on and off, for several months."

Lethem was eventually convinced by Aukin, who is currently on Broadway with the hit "4,000 Miles," so the director assembled a creative team to reconfigure the tale, an allegory for the cultural and musical highs and lows of black America from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Composer Michael Friedman has created a score that offers pastiches of music ranging from doo-wop to soul to rap, making tonal nods to sonic pioneers. The result is an aural scrapbook of the era, starring a Temptations-like group called The Subtle Distinctions. "When certain moments in your life are occurring," Aukin says, "even innocuous pop tunes can become intertwined, almost like smell, with a certain memory of a certain moment in your life. And I felt like that was sort of a touchstone to how music in a novel might find an analog in musical theater."

The greatest challenge was Lethem's story, which runs more than 500 pages. Librettist Itamar Moses and Aukin pledged "to take on basically the full span of the novel," Aukin says. But they backed off from a literal retelling "with the aim and intention that the [musical] could stand up on its own as something obviously, intimately connected with the novel, but at the same time, its own thing that stands as a piece of musical theater in its own right."

While the Lethem storyline of a magic ring will appear in the musical, another narrative detail will not: the brief sexual relationship between the two leads, depicted in the book as a frantic bid for connection.

While the subplot was retained in several drafts of the libretto, it was eventually jettisoned, Aukin says, to avoid sensationalizing, because "it felt to us like, physicalizing that [friendship] romantically was secondary to making sure that bond and that sense of closeness was part of the storytelling."

Powerhouse Theater at Vassar College, June 22 to July 29. (845) 437-5599;

Comments (0)
Add a Comment
  • or

Support Chronogram