The Barrow Street Theatre, an off-Broadway producing venue that keeps a particularly close eye on what's popping in Chicago, is where David Cromer first made his name, when his production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" transferred from Chicago in 2009 and exploded a director's career.
Currently, Cromer is at it again at the Barrow Street, the 199-seat New York theater that most resembles an off-Loop venue, where his brilliantly directed production of Nina Raine's "Tribes," a raw, searing play about a young deaf man's journey within a dysfunctional family of British intellectuals, allows Cromer to play to his strengths. When it comes to directing actors to tell an intense story for an audience seated close to the action, Cromer is the guy. His choices in "Tribes," which stars Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry, seem designed to take a family that, like many families, talks about everything but nothing, and tear away its defenses, leaving everyone nearly naked in the middle of the stage.
The result is Chicago-style theater in Greenwich Village. "Tribes" has already been extended through September.
So is Cromer doing something similar with Jonathan Larson's "Rent," which begins previews at the American Theater Company in Chicago this weekend?
"We're just doing 'Rent'; it works just fine by itself," Cromer said with a laugh the other day, talking in a Chicago bar after rehearsal and resisting the idea that if Cromer is doing "Rent," then Cromer must be doing something with "Rent." But Cromer, who has been stuck in a long development loop with "Yank," a new Broadway-aimed musical, has been itching to do a musical.
"I used to have a problem with myself liking 'Rent,'" he mused. "I suppose I thought I was just too cool to like it. But now I find I just want to spend some time in a rehearsal room with that material. It roars with this incredible passion. People sing, you know, lines like, 'I die.'"
"Rent" has, of course, lived in Chicago many times over the years, and there have been a couple of local productions. But the majority of the show's fans in this city have seen only various manifestations of Michael Greif's original Broadway staging.
So what, exactly, will Cromer do differently?
A few plans emerged in our conversation. The American Theater Company has been reconfigured to support an alley-style staging, where the audience is seated on either side of the action, as is the case with "Tribes." "We've moved seats in that theater," Cromer said, "that have not been moved in 25 years."
Cromer also said that he was interested in exploring in more realistic detail the work that the characters do — Mark and Roger's film-making, Maureen's performance art — thus honoring what these young Bohemians are in the East Village to actually do, at least when they are not distracted by love or the problems of the world outside. "I want to treat seriously," Cromer said, "the life for which these characters are striving."
He also pulled out images from his iPad that suggested the look of the show will be not so much a world of theatrical scaffolds but a harsher look at the grittier aspects of the East Village in the early 1990s. (The piece is not explicit nor entirely consistent about the precise moment of its setting).
But the orchestrations are the standard orchestrations; the cast is a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors, most of whom are young; and the show, Cromer insists, is just for Chicago.
No doubt. Barrow Street won't be able to get its hands on this one, since "Rent," as revised by Greif, still plays off-Broadway.
"I'd love to say this was a radical re-interpretation of 'Rent,'" Cromer said of his Chicago show. "But it's really just about a few young people who are very cold on Christmas Eve and don't want to leave the house because they want to stay home and work. But they do go out. And they fall in love."
And that might be just the radical interpretation the show needs.
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