Remy Bumppo revives radio drama by award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard
For James Bohnen, Remy Bumppo Theatre's invitation to direct Tom Stoppard's early radio play "Artist Descending a Staircase" was an offer he couldn't refuse.
"I would do his plays anywhere, anytime," said Remy Bumppo co-founder Bohnen, who served as the Chicago theater company's founding artistic director until his 2011 retirement.
A longtime admirer of the Tony and Academy Award-winning writer, Bohnen had suggested his former company revive Stoppard's 1972 play, a combination whodunit and time-jumping examination of perception and love about three artists in love with the same blind woman.
The play, which Bohnen describes as an overlooked gem, marks Bohnen's 16th Stoppard play and his fifth with Remy Bumppo artistic director Nick Sandys.
"We came together over Stoppard," said Sandys, who plays the artist Beauchamp.
"Stoppard encapsulates the challenges of great British classical theater in that the ideas are big," Sandys said.
Stoppard's works have been a Remy Bumppo staple since its 1996 founding.
"It's like doing Shakespeare. It's like doing Shaw. It's challenging for the actor," Sandys said. "Like Shakespeare, he's a hugely emotional playwright but most people don't see that or hear that. That's the challenge."
Sandys, an artistic associate with Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre, says Stoppard protagonists are often "nerds of some sort." That holds a certain appeal to bookworms Sandys and Bohnen, who after retiring from Remy Bumppo opened a book store in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It's near American Players Theatre, the celebrated outdoor theater where Bohnen has directed productions for more than 25 years.
"There's a kind of intellectual and emotional challenge in Stoppard's writing. He's much more emotional than people think," said Bohnen. "That's what has always drawn me to the plays."
Stoppard tells stories clearly, quickly and well, said Bohnen. And that suits the sensibility of Remy Bumppo, which has been long identified with Stoppard's work.
As a radio play, "Artist" is ideal for the coronavirus era. While it's been adapted for the stage in the past, it is fundamentally, "a play for the ear," said Bohnen.
"It comments on itself, on art, on friendship, on love," he said, adding "friendship and love have become the most important things in people's lives over the last 13 months because they've had so much taken away from them."
"The comments on art will make people laugh out loud," said Bohnen, "and this 50-year mystery of a blind woman and who she's actually in love with is really moving."
Remy Bumppo's production is a chance for theater lovers to experience an infrequently produced work by one of theater's masters.
"It's a rarity," said Sandys.
The production is also something of a coda. As Bohnen prepares to step back from theater and Sandys prepares to pass the company's artistic leadership to a new artistic director, it commemorates the end of an era.
Finally, "Artist Descending a Staircase" serves as Remy Bumppo's thank you to its audience and supporters.
"This is an offering to them," said Sandys, describing it as the theater's way of saying: "We're still here thanks to you. We hope you enjoy this."
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"Artist Descending a Staircase"
When: Streaming Monday, April 5, through Sunday, April 18
Where: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
Tickets: Free, but donations accepted. Registration is required at remybumppo.org/artistdescending.