News Column

Chicago actors cultivate Three Oaks festival

July 18, 2013


July 18--The word "portable" fails to convey the challenges inherent in moving 3,000 pieces of glass.

But director Hans Fleisch-mann and his crew plan to do just that in order to transfer their Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" from Chicago's Theater Wit to Three Oaks' Acorn Theater for Saturday's performance.

"It means, for one performance, building the most elaborate, design-heavy show that I've ever been part of," Fleisch-mann says by phone from Chicago. "For one performance. Every meeting we had, it was me and (artistic director) Richard Cotovsky saying, 'This is insane.' ... It's crazy. But I think it will be good for us, and we want audiences to see our shows."

And that's what co-founders John Stoops, Tim Evans and

Marc Grapey -- all veterans of Chicago's theater world -- had in mind when they conceived of the Three Oaks Theater Festival, the producer for Saturday's performance.

"We set out to do one thing, and that is bring the best theater we could to southwestern Michigan," Stoops says by phone from Chicago. "As simple as it was, that was the goal. It would be very easy for us to bring an improv show or a staged reading, but I think the strategy is to bring the best of the best. I think there's potential if we do that to hit it out of the park."

"(Stoops') model is Theater on the Lake in Chicago," Acorn co-owner David Fink says by phone from Chicago. "They take shows that had successful runs and are portable and bring them back for people who didn't see them. He thought to do that in Three Oaks, take shows with successful runs and that are portable and do them at the Acorn."

Despite the complexity of the production -- the 3,000 pieces of glass, projections, a lighting design that's integral to the show -- Stoops pursued Fleisch-mann and Cotovsky for months after seeing "The Glass Menagerie" in February to get them to agree to stage it for the Three Oaks Theater Festival.

"They said they appreciated the flattery," Stoops says, "but there was no way that could happen. ... I said if we're true to our goal of bringing the best of the best, we had to have this, so I stalked them for months and months, and Hans said no for months and months because Hans will not compromise on his vision. He said he's created this totally immersive experience and he wasn't going to bring just his actors to do it. ... I said put me in touch with your crew. Slowly, we figured out how to do it."

"The Glass Menagerie" premiered in Chicago in 1944 and became Williams' first hit.

Set in the South, the play focuses on a pivotal night in the life of the Wingfield family: Amanda and her two children, daughter Laura, who has a limp and spends most of her time with her collection of glass animals, and Tom, who wants to be a poet but works in shoe warehouse to support the family. When Tom brings a co-worker, Jim, home one night, the family hopes he will become Laura's suitor.

"There's such a wide range of regret and anger, all dealing with family," Fleischmann says. "I think when we're young actors and this play is forced upon us, as it should be because it's a classic, there are a lot of key things we can relate to as young actors. I think there's a lot we can relate to as young actors as we're leaving home and finding out who we're becoming and leaving behind who we were."

Fleischmann, who also stars as Tom, changes the setting to an alley, where Tom now lives as a homeless man.

"We've made Tom schizophrenic," he says, "and he's condemned to reliving the same mistake over and over. ... It's only at the end that you feel that ache, that longing, and we apply it to the rest of the play. You see it from the moment he steps onstage. You see this is a man who did not get what he wanted, and I think it makes every single moment a little more heart-wrenching."

The season began July 6 with the Blair Thomas & Co.'s production of Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant."

The audience's response to the puppet theater's performance exceeded everyone's expectations: The theater was configured for 150 people, but they had 169 paid attendees and an unknown number of children ages 4 and younger admitted for free.

After Saturday's "Glass Menagerie" performance, the festival continues with July 27's performance of the TurnAround Theatre's production of Brian Friel's "The Faith Healer" and concludes Aug. 3 with the world premiere of "Complicated," a musical based on Poi Dog Pondering's 1995 album "Pomegranate."

Director J.R. Sullivan and actors Si Osborne, Lia D. Mortensen and Brad Armacost produced "The Faith Healer" at the TurnAround Theatre in 1995, and all four have returned for a reprise that ran in December and January at Chicago's Den Theatre. They'll reunite again for the Three Oaks Theater Festival performance.

"It created quite a stir," Stoops says about the 1995 storefront production. "They sold out the run almost immediately. There were lines down the block. The reviews were incredible."

A "personal relationship" put "Complicated" on their radar, Stoops says: Writer and director Brigid Murphy is married to Grapey and was a member of Poi Dog Pondering when it recorded "Pomegranate." The band will perform the show's music and singer Syd Straw is one of the cast members.

"This is the production," Stoops says. "It's a first look. It has never been staged before. God knows where it will go, but this is its initial incarnation. ... It's going to be really interesting, but also a risk to a certain extent, but how wrong can you go when you start with Poi Dog Pondering's 'Pomegranate,' Syd Straw and Brigid Murphy?"

An actor, director and producer in Chicago for almost 20 years, Stoops and his wife had heard about Three Oaks and Harbor Country from Chicago friends, and on a whim five years ago, they drove over to look for themselves.

"I don't think we'd gotten out of the car before we were saying, 'Holy cow, why haven't we been here before?' " he says. "Within 18 months of first stepping foot in Harbor Country, we were homeowners. ... The first thing that grabbed us was the physical beauty. The lakefront is second to none. ... Then you go to a town like Three Oaks with its historic Main Street. You can compare pictures of Main Street to 100 years ago and realize it's barely changed."

As Stoops and his wife got to know the community, the idea for the Three Oaks Theater Festival started to take root, and he, Evans and Grapey pitched their idea to The Pokagon Fund, which is underwriting the season.

"There's a real depth to this artistic bent the folks have in that region as evidenced by the art studios, the pottery studios, the live music, the Vickers (movie theater)," Stoops says about why they believe the festival will be a success. "This isn't fudge stands and T-shirt shops. I always get a kick out of the banners that line Main Street that say, 'Cooler than the lake.' "


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