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“Master Builders” in “Glass Houses”

Date: May 17, 2010


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When theatres produce a classic play, they usually talk about relevance. What does Romeo and Juliet mean in 2010? Can Oedipus connect with a 21st-century crowd? Will Miss Julie’s crisis feel more immediate if she enters to a Lady Gaga song?

Those questions make sense… to a point. No one wants a show to feel stale, but the quest for relevance can certainly go too far. We’ve all heard about dubiously “re-imagined” productions that deposit, say, As You Like It in space or Uncle Vanya in a submarine.

Eric Parness has even worked on a few of those shows. Remembering his early career, he says, “I ended up being involved in a lot of productions that were taking classic plays and trying to manipulate them in a way that made them contemporary, to the point that I thought it was working against what made the classic plays classic. I want to say, ‘Forget about that process of trying to impose something contemporary on a classical play.’”

Instead, Parness has developed his own process. He’s the co-founder and artistic director of Resonance Ensemble, and every season, his company mounts both a classic play and a new show that’s somehow connected to the older one.

For instance, a 2007 production of The Cherry Orchard was paired with the world premiere of Arthur Giron’s The Coffee Trees, which rewrites the Chekhov plot for a Guatemalan plantation. A few years before that, Sophocles’ Antigone appeared next to Ismene, Celia Montgomery’s new spin on the same Greek myth.

From now until June 5, Resonance is exploring architecture. They’re producing The Master Builder Ibsen’s masterpiece about an architect who’s haunted by a young woman from his past, and they’re running it in rep with June Finfer’s The Glass House, which uses the lives and buildings of Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson as the backdrop for a battle between artists and clients.

Finfer wasn’t writing with the The Master Builder in mind, but she’s arguably continuing Ibsen’s conversation. “What June has done very well is find a lot of these universal struggles that an artist goes through, especially an artist who’s older,” says Parness. “How do you stay relevant? How do you deal with a younger generation that’s clamoring to be known and be seen? It’s somewhat coincidental, but it’s also a testament to our universal ideas when we’re dealing with this subject.”

But for Parness, pairing plays is about more than universal themes. It’s also about clarifying the “continuum of theatre history as something that evolves” and demonstrating that modern playwrights should always be engaged with theatre history.

And of course, he wants the company’s mission to stimulate audiences. About twenty-five percent of Resonance patrons see both shows in a season---sometimes on the same day---and they often find connections that Parness never saw.

Ideally, they also find connections to themselves. Parness says, “As an audience member, we hope you’re able to say, ‘Wow, what that guy’s going through in 1940 and that other guy is going through in 1892, I’m going through today.’ That’s what we’re hoping for. That’s not only about the theatre. That’s about life.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor


[Photo credits: The casts of The Master Builder and Glass House. Photos by John Kandel.]