Lunt and Fontanne open the Rep's new season
Mark Clements shuffled the deck last season. It's what you expect a new artistic director to do in his first year at the controls of a large regional theater company.
Milwaukee Rep audiences were exposed to new actors, new directors, new playwrights and the spectacle of the first full Broadway musical on the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater stage. Change happened.
Year 2 of the Clements era is getting an intriguing start this week. The familiar has returned.
The first show of the new season is being directed by Joseph Hanreddy, Clements' predecessor. For most of his 17 years in the job Hanreddy staged the opening production in the Powerhouse.
The play is titled "Ten Chimneys," and its setting is southeastern Wisconsin's unique theatrical shrine, the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne estate in Genesee Depot that attracted the great theater artists of the world to Waukesha County during the first half of the 20th century. Ten Chimneys the estate has been gloriously restored to its previous splendor, and it is open to public tours, intimate music and theater performances, and theatrical workshops.
Prolific Minneapolis dramatist Jeffrey Hatcher wrote the play, which was first staged by the Arizona Theatre Company last season. Many of Hatcher's works have been produced here over the years.
"It's a good play. It's about the creative process and what actors put themselves through. It's about art and artists and ego and aspiration," Hanreddy said during a recent chat.
"Ten Chimneys" is also historical fiction. The Lunts often started rehearsals early for their Broadway productions, beginning with a few of the principal actors at their Genesee Depot home before moving on to New York. They did not do that for a real 1938 production of Chekhov's "The Seagull," but Hatcher is pretending they did.
"The Seagull" is notorious for its lovers triangles, and "Ten Chimneys" hints that maybe a triangle was threatening to emerge in the 1938 Broadway cast. The young and Madison-bred actress Uta Hagen played the girlish Nina smitten with the older writer Trigorin, portrayed by Alfred Lunt. Hanreddy noted that it was one of the few times Lunt and Fontanne were not romantically involved with each other on stage, and Fontanne is believed to have been less than thrilled with the production.
"Alfred and Uta got great reviews, Lynn not as much," Hanreddy said. The Lunts always toured their shows after the Broadway run, and Hagen left "The Seagull" during its time on the road. That is curious and provides a writer an opportunity to spin a story.
It is particularly interesting that after "The Seagull," the Lunts always played characters who were either reuniting or happily married to each other. No more ingenues batted their eyes at Alfred on stage.
Since their deaths, biographers and others have raised questions about the sexual preferences of Lunt and Fontanne, suggesting their marriage was a cover for their true sexuality. Hanreddy said that is only speculation, adding, "I don't know this play is any more fictional than some of the biographies.
"This is essentially a comedy," he continued. "Chekhov is its model. It has a literacy, and there are moments when we hope to move people.
"The play has a Noel Coward veneer in its wit, but it is more fully rounded than Coward. He couldn't have written it."
Hanreddy's professional plans have changed a bit since he left the artistic directorship of the Rep a year ago. A fellowship program in directing and design he was to co-found and co-lead at UWM was cancelled due to financial concerns. "The landscape for everything is harder going forward," he explained.
Guest directing jobs at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, Ill., the REP at the University of Delaware, and a second show here at the Rep – "A Christmas Carol" – as well as part time teaching for undergraduates at UWM are keeping Hanreddy busy this season. "I have a full year. I feel lucky," he said.
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