TRTC: ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH

A slew of classic characters from the pens of Shakespeare, Coward and Wilson and more will tread the boards of the Red Bank stage this season.  (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

“I feel like I’m having a dream,” the playwright and performance artist Lisa Kron said as she faced a capacity crowd at Two River Theater Monday night.

“In high school, we, the theater people, were like the outcasts,” she said. “This is the pep rally we never had.”

The occasion for the spirited assembly was the annual new-season announcement  by Two River Theater Company — one of the most highly anticipated such events in New Jersey stage circles, and one presided over by John Dias, now in his second season as TRTC’s artistic director.

As introduced by the nationally renowned producer and some celebrated associates, the 2012-2013 schedule builds upon the successful template established in the current 2011-2012 season — a season that climaxes with the production of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s My Wonderful Day, going up in previews on May 15.

Utilizing both the mainstage Rechnitz auditorium and the “black box” Marion Huber space at TRTC’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, the new slate of eight shows mixes classics of the English language with new American voices; intimate solos with exquisite ensembles, and new faces with a whole lot of returning favorites — with words from the likes of Noel Coward, August Wilson and a guy by the name of Shakespeare.

Veterans of Broadway and the Two River Theater, Michael Cumpsty and Chuck Cooper return to the Red Bank stage in 2013.

Joining Dias on stage were a couple of people new to Two River — Kron (whose Broadway production Well was developed with Dias and director Leigh Silverman), and composer-bandleader Ethan Lipton — as well as a pair of Tony-lauded talents who should be familiar not just to Broadway habitues, but to regular observers of the Red Bank scene.

Presently appearing in End of the Rainbow on Broadway (a show for which he’s received a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor), Michael Cumpsty previewed his involvement with next year’s Present Laughter as a project that “will bring me back to Red Bank, which is where I want to be. I fell in love with this theater, and with the family at the theater.”

An Obie winner for Hamlet and, with Dias, a resident of Middletown, Cumpsty (who starred for TRTC in 2011′s Much Ado About Nothing, and shared the stage with Alec Baldwin for a fundraiser last November) got laughs for suggesting that his role in the Coward comedy — “an aging matinee idol, who throws everyone around him into a vortex of neurosis” — was brought to him as being “kind of like (my) life.”

Making a big splash with Monday night’s audience was Chuck Cooper, the actor and singer who starred this year in both the “chamber musical” In This House and the Red Bank run of August Wilson’s Jitney. The winner of the 1997 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (as Memphis, in The Life) will be portraying a different character by the name of Memphis, when he reunites with noted director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and the words of August Wilson for Two Trains Running. Referring to the late African American playwright as “the American Bard” — and calling up the concept of the “blood memory” that unites people of diverse backgrounds — the actor observed that “just like Shakespeare, it takes about a minute to get Wilson’s poetry. You lean into it and you get it. Come to this play and you will remember.”

A high point of the evening was Cooper’s performance of a song from next season’s “family show” presentation, A Wind in the Willows Christmas. The “Americanized” adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved animal characters was composed by the In This House songwriting partnership of Mike Reid and Sarah Schlesinger, although  there are, unfortunately, no plans to suit up Cooper as Mr. Toad when the show makes its bow in December.

The 2012-2013 season, for which subscriptions will soon be made available, is as follows:

TOP DOG/ UNDERDOG (September 8-30, 2012). In 2002, Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for this tale of two brothers, a game of Three Card Monte, and the shared past that can’t be escaped. On the tenth anniversary of this theatrical milestone, Dias and TRTC managing director Michael Hurst return to the play that they helped develop in its premiere at NYC’s Public Theater, with the playwright herself as director.

NO PLACE TO GO (October 6 – November 4, 2012). The quirky, retro-rocketing music of Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra is front and center for this “irreverent, deeply compassionate musical ode to America’s work force,” a lament for a longtime employee whose company has announced that it’s moving to another planet. TRTC Associate Artist Leigh Silverman (who directed Lisa Kron in Well) takes the helm for this premiere inside the Marion Huber Theater.

HENRY V (October 20 – November 11, 2012). William Shakespeare’s supercharged history of a gung-ho young king and the costs of living in a perpetual state of war — the play that gave us the rousing exhortation “Once more unto the breach” — is staged by Michael Sexton of The Shakespeare Society, with a cast featuring “some of New York’s most accomplished young Shakespearean actors.”

A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS (December 8-30, 2012). In TRTC’s annual holiday presentation for family audiences, Grammy winning Nashville songsmith and recording artist (plus ex-NFL defensive tackle) Mike Reid reteams with Sarah Schlesinger for a new take on the adventures of Mr. Toad, Mr. Badger, Mole and company, while director Amanda Dehnert makes a long-awaited Red Bank debut.

PRESENT LAUGHTER (February 16 – March 10, 2013). Two River Theater Company visits the works of Noel Coward for the third time (following Blithe Spirit and Private Lives) with this witty and sophisticated “valentine to the theater,” in which Cumpsty stars as the debonair leading man Gary Essendine. A director will be announced later this year.

THE ELECTRIC BABY (April 6 – May 5, 2013). For their next world premiere project inside the Marion Huber space, the TRTC team welcomes playwright Stephanie Zadravec for this adult drama about the way we form families — a story in which “a group of lost souls are brought together by accident, and form unlikely connections that will change all of their lives.” May Adrales (In This House) directs.

2.5 MINUTE RIDE (April 20 – May 12, 2013). Performing this monologue piece for the first time in about ten years, author and storyteller Lisa Kron spins a moving and funny autobiographical story that centers on her relationship with her Holocaust survivor father — an Obie-nominated whirlwind tour that careens from concentration camp to amusement park rollercoaster ride. Mark Brokaw (Broadway’s The Lyons) directs.

August Wilson’s TWO TRAINS RUNNING (June 1-23, 2013). Continuing their exploration of Wilson’s epic “Pittsburgh Cycle” that began with this season’s Jitney (and bringing back Chuck Cooper as well as Tony winning actor, director and “first generation Wilsonian” Ruben Santiago-Hudson), TRTC advances into Summer’s heat with this ensemble drama set in the riot-scarred urban landscape of the 1960s; a crucial component of a project that Dias calls “one of the greatest chronicles of a people and a time…one of the greatest works of art ever.”

Take it here for individual tickets to the upcoming production of My Wonderful Day, as well as an “Intimate Evening With…” series of star-quality music concerts at Two River Theater. Check in for updates on other summertime events at Bridge Ave, including the second annual Crossing Borders festival, Joe Muccioli’s Summer Jazz Series and the BOLERO Red Bank dance project — about all of which more to come in the paperless pages of redbankgreen.