The Bartell Theatre is home to Stage Q, Strollers Theatre, the Madison Theatre Guild, Mercury Players Theatre, Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre (KRASS), and also hosts some of the Madison Ballet’s performances. These groups recently announced their seasons, which include more than two dozen productions that will add tremendously to the diversity of performing arts offerings in our community. The Bartell is also a terrific showcase for many talented actors, directors, writers, and designers who love the craft but are committed to day jobs.
After perusing the plans for next year, I'm hoping to review many of the performances for Isthmus. Here are five reasons why I’m so excited:
1. Getting Political – The Rhinoceros in the Room. Shortly after the election last November, there was a lot of discussion on social media about what role artists would play in protesting the policies espoused by Donald Trump. Lists were made of plays that could illustrate the dangers inherent in a dictatorial leader who would not act in the best interest of the country’s citizens, who demonized the “other” and used fear to manipulate the masses. So I eagerly anticipated the season announcements of theaters across the country, looking for the subversive plays we had discussed with such enthusiasm months before.
Instead, the vast majority played it safe. They programmed chestnuts and feel-good shows that would give audiences a respite from political turmoil instead of dealing with it head on. And then I saw the announcement that Strollers Theatre was including the Ionesco play Rhinoceros in its 2017-18 season. A brilliant absurdist piece, it was written in the 1950s to illustrate the dangers of Communism, Fascism and Nazi-ism. It was the first play I thought of producing to make a statement in the age of Trump and I am completely delighted that one of the Bartell companies is bringing it to life.
2. The Women’s Movement. In another move that separates the Bartell companies from many other theaters (particularly Broadway), they have included a significant number of plays by women. Not only that, they have chosen pieces by three of the leading women dramatists working in America today: Annie Baker (The Flick), Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room or the vibrator play, Clean House, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Eurydice) and Paula Vogel (The Baltimore Walz, How I Learned to Drive, Indecent). The fact that they have chosen lesser-known works from these female powerhouse writers may be a hard sell, but will be incredibly exciting to see. Count this as one small but important step towards gender parity.
3. Taking on the Tough Ones. There are some superstar playwrights included in this year’s season — William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Stephen Sondheim and Edward Albee. But the Bartell is not serving up these famous authors’ greatest hits. They are taking on the more obscure, and the more challenging titles. This will surely be a demanding task for the directors and actors, but one that is worth undertaking. I look forward to seeing unfamiliar plays from very familiar authors.
4. Wisconsin Writes. There are a lot of opportunities for local playwrights to showcase their work at the Bartell this season, and that should be applauded. Also noteworthy is an audience that embraces plays in development and supports this essential step in the life of new work. This season brings back the cult favorite Temp Slave: The Musical by Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn and premieres Such a Pretty by Betty Diamond; the annual 24-hour page-to-stage Mercury Blitz; Nick Schweitzer’s panto riff on Harry Potter; and a docu-drama about the founding of the Bartell by Suzan Kurry and Brendon Smith.
5. Tenacious B. The Bartell is 20 years old, and while anniversaries are always fun to celebrate, some are more of an accomplishment than others. The Bartell’s very existence after two decades of ups and downs is extraordinary. The unique co-op structure that benefits six different community arts groups also demands a lot of hard work, flexibility and collaboration among organizations —most of which are run on a shoe-string budget without professional staff. Everyone who has contributed to the Bartell’s success over the last two decades should rightfully take a bow.