Feb. 15, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 10

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    Former UT members raise curtain on new production

    Several faces among the cast of Alexander Ostrovsky’s A Family Affair at the Chopin Theater this month and the next may seem familiar to University faculty, students and graduates who attend the performances. Four of the play’s central characters––Lazar (Chris Conry), Tishka (Tom Howe), Mishka (Rebecca Kotler) and Lipochka (Doran Schrantz)––are portrayed by current or former members of University Theater.
    greasy joan
    Doran Schrantz (A.B., ’97, left) and Chris Conry (A.B.,’97) have leading roles in A Family Affair.

    A glance at the production’s program confirms that greasy joan and company, the professional theater company behind the performances, is deeply connected to the University’s independent student theater organization. In addition to the four actors, Conry (A.B., ’97), Howe (A.B., ’00), Kotler, a student in the College, and Schrantz (A.B., ’97), seven members of the production staff are University alumni, most of whom received their first taste of life behind the scenes through involvement with UT.

    Under director Gavin Witt’s supervision, the team responsible for the staging of A Family Affair includes Andre Pluess (A.B., ’96), sound designer; Erin Teufel (A.B., ’00), costume designer; Joshua Epstein (A.B., ’97), set and lighting designer; Saket Soni (E.X. ’00), assistant director; Dan Stearns (A.B., ’91, A.M. ’93), production manager; and David Wolf (A.B., ’00), technical director.

    A Family Affair presents audiences with a wickedly scathing portrait of an upper-middle-class merchant’s household in 1850’s Moscow. Witt, a Lecturer in the Humanities as well as a graduate student in English Language & Literature, describes the play as a comic drama. “The plot centers around a young man who marries his boss’s daughter and then plots with his bride to betray the family’s trust,” he explained. “Law, family, marriage, financiers––nobody is spared being skewered by the play, in the most delicious way.”

    Although it is not well known to contemporary American audiences, Ostrovsky’s play was highly provocative for class-conscious Russian theatergoers during the mid-19th century. As such, it fits with greasy joan’s reputation for producing works that fall just outside of the mainstream repertory of classical theater companies. Witt, who co-founded greasy joan and company with friends in 1995, said the group’s identity helps it stand out in contrast to the “gritty naturalism” prevalent among small, Chicago-based companies.

    “Although we are classically oriented, we do tend to focus on works that are eclectic or obscure,” Witt explained. “greasy joan has performed everything from Shakespeare’s Pericles and Machiavelli’s The Mandrake to more contemporary work. What connects the pieces we choose is that they’re generally overlooked pieces with wonderfully poetic language and universal themes.

    “Once we decided to do the play, I pretty much knew already with whom I wanted to work,” said Witt. “There’s this developing network of amazingly talented University students and graduates working in the city’s theater community.”

    Kotler, a fourth-year undergraduate in the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities, whose role in A Family Affair constitutes part of her creative bachelor’s thesis project on performance, said working on her portrayal of Mishka has given her a deeper sense of the commitment necessary for success in professional theater. “I’m getting a taste of reality this quarter, working with actors who have full-time jobs during the day and rehearse at night,” she explained. “They’re not kidding when they say you have to be crazy to pursue acting, but when I ask them if it’s worth it, usually the answer is yes.”

    Although she isn’t yet sure she wants to dedicate herself to a professional life in the theater, Kotler said she feels extremely fortunate to have the chance to fuse her interests in performance with her academic studies. “It’s what I love about concentrating in General Studies. The faculty supports students who have a strong interest in creating art within a rigorous academic framework.”

    Although the University does not offer a degree program in performance, Kotler said there have been ample opportunities for her to pursue her interest in acting for the stage, both at UT and in her coursework. She first met Witt last Winter Quarter, when she enrolled in Shakespeare in Performance, a class he taught at the University.

    “It was great,” Kotler commented. “The class was small enough so Gavin could work closely with us on our parts. He encouraged us to do detailed scene work and find innovative ways to make words on a page become active,” she continued.

    David Bevington, the Phyllis Faye Horton Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities, who advises Witt’s dissertation work on English Renaissance drama and has co-taught Shakespeare in Performance in recent years with him, also serves on the advisory boards of UT and greasy joan and company. He said Witt’s expertise as a director and acting coach has opened up some exciting new ways of teaching students in the College about Shakespeare. “Gavin and I have taught together many times and it’s worked out wonderfully,” Bevington said. “We’ve read a lot of plays together, and I think our students have learned a tremendous amount about theater through the collaboration.”

    Public performances of A Family Affair began Monday, Feb. 12. The play will continue through Sunday, March 18, with performances beginning at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. There will be no show Thursday, Feb. 22. Tickets for Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances are $20. Student, senior and group rates are available, and members of the audience attending Thursday shows are asked to “pay what they can.” To reserve tickets or for more information, call (773) 761-8284.