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New Summer Theater Company Debuts in Burlington

State of the Arts


Published July 8, 2009 at 9:30 a.m.

Kohler McKenzie and Paul Kite - ANDY DUBACK
  • Andy Duback
  • Kohler McKenzie and Paul Kite

When playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy launched the Atlantic Theater Company in the 1980s, they made Vermont the troupe’s summer sanctuary. The newcomers of the Red Stage Theatre Company have a similar model in mind as they ready their debut production, Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 verse drama J.B., for its July 17 opening at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center.

The Red Stage roster includes nine hungry thespians entering their final years of graduate theater study at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. — hence the “Red” name, a reference to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights sports teams.

One of the group’s co-artistic directors is Burlington native and actor Kohler McKenzie, nephew to Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre. It was McKenzie’s idea to make his hometown the Red Stage summer nest. Or maybe “incubator” is more apt. As McKenzie puts it, the young company hopes to create “an artistic home to do what we wanted to do and to work the way we want to work.” He set them up in communal lodgings in a University of Vermont frat house and pulled some strings for rehearsal space.

While Red Stage’s new home may nurture the “cutting-edge, evocative and socially relevant professional theater” art that its mission statement promises, the down economy offers ample opportunity to suffer for it. Only a few of the players have found summer employment to keep ramen on the table, and those jobs fall below the table-waiting standard set by previous generations of theater artists.

But suffering may be good preparation for J.B. The play’s title character is the personification of human suffering: Job. In MacLeish’s work, Job’s faith in God is put to the test in a modern context. Far from asserting dogma, the play raises profound questions about the nature of suffering, faith and, ultimately, love.

Red Stage’s second show, Five Flights, by Adam Bock, also explores deep questions, but with comedy. The 2002 play, opening on August 21, finds a family negotiating grief — with Dad having built an aviary for his deceased wife, who he believes has transformed into a bird. “It’s very whimsical,” says Paul Kite, actor and co-artistic director. “It explores a lot of questions about how we deal with loss. It questions relationships. It questions friends, what it is to have family, what family means, the alliances we create and break throughout our lives … how we come back to each other again.”

Such big ideas don’ scare Red Stage co-artistic director and production director Maryna Harrison. “We’re all naturally drawn to material that has a pretty big knot at the center of it,” she says. “I want to give people stuff that’s theatrical, that’s innovative, that’s imaginative and blows your mind, but that [has] a really strong entry point for a theatergoer.”

The question of accessibility looms large in a season that connotes, for many, light entertainment. Still, Harrison isn’t balking. The Smith College undergrad with seven years’ experience in the Off and Off Off Broadway trenches of New York City embraces the challenge of engaging audiences in serious work through skillful theatricality. She calls this goal nothing less than “my generation’s calling.”

In addition to their two main-stage shows, Red Stage has been performing Shakespeare excerpts in public spaces under the “Shakespeare Goes Green” banner, accompanied by their own Recycled Trash Band.

If this irreverent approach to the Bard seems to stand in stark contrast to J.B.’s depiction of a vengeful God, for the Red Stage players it’s all of a piece. It’s the difference between theater as a discovery process and a play as perfect product. “We ask questions,” Kite says. “I feel that, in art, that’s the greatest thing you can do … Respect is sometimes the death of art, because you don’t touch it. Art is not something that ceases changing.”