by Richard Engling
Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays has apparently reached the proper vintage to bear multiple fruit. This summer two scripts developed in the Dionysos Cup series will see their world premieres playing simultaneously, the series itself adds video thanks to an award from the Saints, another Dionysos Cup play has gone on to further development with the Goodman Theatre, and Polarity will award this year’s Cup to a worthy and entertaining new script.
Winning the 2012 Dionysos Cup is Land Where My Fathers Died by Ron Hirsen, a funny, poignant play about the collision of indigenous rights with contemporary property rights. In it, a middle aged school teacher returns from work to find a traditional Native American tepee on the front lawn of her Rogers Park home. Grander, a quirky old man from the Potawatomi reservation in Wisconsin, emerges and informs her that he has come to spend his final days on the land promised by the ancestors. Whose land is it? Will Grander die there on the lawn? Will anyone want to taste his squirrel jerky?
Polarity is producing the world premiere of Adrift in association with Azusa Productions, directed by Maggie Speer, July 26 – August 26, 2012 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Adrift, a play by David Alex, was presented and developed in the 2008 Dionysos Cup. Isaac Abbas, a devoted and loving son, wanders in search of an answer, “How can I forgive myself for the choice I made?” The memory of his father, Jack, a Naval Officer who suffered from post-traumatic stress, continues to haunt him. As a high school teacher, Isaac attempts to help his student, Tom, reconcile with his father who also serves as Isaac’s principal. Fathers and sons grow and learn from each other as they confront and make decisions concerning definitions of truth, loyalty, honor and accountability. The production features James Eldrenkamp, Colin Fewell, Gary Murphy and Eric Swanson. David Alex has received three Grant Awards from the Illinois Arts Council in Recognition in Playwriting (including Adrift) and a Grant from the Pilgrim Foundation. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and former Secretary of the Chicago Alliance for Playwrights and the Illinois Theatre Association.
Savage Land (formerly entitled Liars of Us All) was featured and developed in the 2012 Dionysos Cup. Its world premiere is being produced by Nothing Special Productions at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, August 3 – September 2, 2012. Savage Land was written by Chicago playwright Josh Nordmark and will be directed by NSP Artistic Director Mikey Laird. Set in the cultural collision of late-18th century colonialism, a lover’s triangle sparks a fury of destruction as Verse, (Celeste Burns) whose curiosity and daring are too often overshadowed by her beauty, follows her lover Henry (Matt Drake) into the depths of the jungle to study the strange and uncivilized natives of the foreign land. The lovers are followed close on the heels by the famed artist Fauntleroy (Scott Danielson), whose lustful desire drives him to claim artistic immortality at any cost and return to society with Verse as a trophy on his arm. It’s a story of conquest and adventure, love and loss.
These two world premieres playing simultaneously will mark the fifth and sixth plays developed in the Dionysos Cup series to reach full production. To date, Polarity has produced five Dionysos Cup Festivals, each featuring four or five new plays in development. Other Dionysos Cup plays not yet produced are also sparking interest. Pound of Flesh by Katie Watson, featured in the 2011 festival, was given another staged reading by the Goodman Theatre in May of this year.
The Dionysos Cup Festival itself was honored in 2012 with an award from The Saints, the nonprofit volunteer organization that supports Chicago theatres with volunteer services and grants. The award from The Saints allowed Polarity to purchase a professional-grade digital video camera film the workshop readings to give further aid to the playwrights. Josh Nordmark, author of Savage Land said, “The DVD is a great tool in connecting the playwright to a full production at another theater. It’s one more option for a producer to see the work previously done on this project.”
Polarity artistic director Richard Engling created the Dionysos Cup Festival early in the company’s history. With each festival, its popularity with local playwrights and with audiences has increased. “I believe it is one of the finest new play development series anywhere,” Engling said. “The workshop readings are produced at a fairly sophisticated level to bring out the qualities of the scripts. However the readings are just one element in a six month long development process. We are there to help these playwrights. We work only with local playwrights so that we can work together in the rehearsal room. We believe Chicago is the best theatre town in the world, and we are doing our best to help develop and produce the local product. We love to see Chicago playwrights working with Chicago actors and directors. We take the plays all the way, when we can. We are about to produce our fifth full production of a Dionysos Cup script so far. It’s a very important part of what we do.”
The Dionysos Cup Festival is in keeping with Polarity’s mission to develop new work. The ‘Polarity’ in its name refers to the poles of the classic and the brand new. Polarity develops new homegrown scripts and brings them to the stage. Another “Polarity” is in bringing works to both the stage and the page. Polarity has published two volumes of plays to date.
Polarity Ensemble Theatre is a professionally diverse group of artists who strive to advance the state of Chicago theater for both local and international audiences by developing new works and bringing new life to the classics through live performance, workshops, and publishing.
Ron Hirsen, author of the 2012 Dionysos Cup-winning Land Where My Fathers Died is a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists. He has worked professionally in Chicago as both director and actor, appearing in productions at Wisdom Bridge, Court Theatre, and Northlight Theatre. His early plays had readings at Wisdom Bridge and the Goodman Theatre. Elegy was read at the Jewish Repertory Theatre in New York, before receiving its premiere production at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in 2002. The Frugal Repast, developed at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 2004, received its premiere production at the Abingdon Theatre in New York in 2007 and has been published by Samuel French. As part of its annual O’Neill celebration, The O’Neill presented a reading in 2005 of Mr. Hirsen’s Gene, a one-act play intended as a companion piece to Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie. Land Where My Fathers Died received the John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Award for 2008 and was heard in readings at Chicago Dramatists and at the New England Theatre Conference prior to its inclusion in the 2012 Dionysos Cup Festival at Polarity Ensemble Theatre in Chicago. The Well-Tempered Clavier had staged readings at Chicago Dramatists and at Abingdon Theatre in New York. Twelve, originally developed at Chicago Dramatists, received a staged reading there in 2009. Other plays include The Incurable Insomnia of Joey Kinderman, Murder at Widow Bull’s, and The Interpretation of Dreams. Mr. Hirsen is a member of The Dramatists Guild and a former member of Actors’ Equity and is represented by Elaine Devlin Literary in New York.