One of Michael Barakiva’s hallmarks is abundance, and he has elected to end his third season as the Hangar’s Artistic Director with a veritable feast of language, a rotating repertory of three great plays about American families in staged readings, ‘The Big Play Festival!’
The casts and directors consist primarily of artists who live in the Ithaca area or who have appeared in a Hangar Mainstage production this season. The BPF! runs August 22–31, and one ticket (just $40) will grant access to all three plays.
The festival opens Thursday with “A Raisin in the Sun,” set in 1950s Chicago with Lorraine’s towering drama of an African-American family. Saturday afternoon finds us in the environs of New York City in the heart of the depression, in Kaufman & Hart’s evergreen comedy classic, “You Can’t Take It with You.” Each play will have four performances over the two weeks (hangartheatre.org).
"August: Osage County" follows on Friday, Tracy Lett’s Tony and Pulitzer winning darkly comic drama of a family imploding as they regather at their Oklahoma homestead upon the disappearance of their patriarch.
These are truly big plays, featuring 40 speaking parts and 35 actors. Barakiva states, “When we were putting the Big Play Festival! together, we chose pieces that we felt would highlight the extraordinary talent of our area. But now that the first rehearsals have taken place, I can say, wowsers! You sort of can’t believe how explosive the stories are, from the heartbreaking nuance of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ to the hilarity of ‘You Can’t Take It with You’ to the operatic drama of ‘August: Osage County.’ We’ve said it before—and putting the BPF! together has proven it beyond any doubt—Ithaca’s got talent!”
Using about half of the expanse of the empty American Eagle storefront at the Shops of Ithaca, Cornell faculty member Beth Milles is working with Jane Blass as the drug addled, aging, yet remarkably sharp-tongued mother of the Weston clan, Violet, and Kathleen Mulligan as her eldest daughter, Barbara, in the middle of a ferocious battle. “August” is filled with meaty characters, juicy conflicts, and an aching combination of laughs and heartache. (They rehearse to a faint background of mall muzak.)
Blass was Jack’s Mother in “Into the Woods” and George in “Kinky Boots.” Violet gives audiences a chance to see her in a major key in a barn-burning role. Mulligan teaches in Ithaca College’s theatre program.
Playing the paterfamilias is Craig Macdonald, who leans in to whisper to me, “It’s ‘Crimes of the Heart,’ ‘King Lear,’ and ‘Three Sisters’ as told by Sam Shepard,” a fairly concise rendering of Letts’ sprawling play.
Later Jennifer Herzog comes in as youngest sister Karen in a non-stop stream of optimism undercut by Mulligan’s terse responses. Then there’s stolid long-suffering Ivy, played by Effie Johnson. Not one of them safe in their mother’s orbit.
Milles, who has directed new plays nation-wide is striving to find a balance between the fully acted and letting the play live in the language mainly as she leans into cast with her characteristic intensity and liveliness.
Meanwhile Bob Moss is planted high above Cayuga, in a spacious suite at South Hill Business Park with Kaufman & Hart’s Sycamore clan. Moss founded Playwright’s Horizons, was the Hangar’s first long-term Artistic Director and served a similar term at Syracuse Stage. He has a long and treasured history with this comedy, having stage managed the fabled Broadway revival in the 60s which featured the legendary Rosemary Harris in the role of the daughter, Alice. Moss avers that this shifted the play’s gravity, revealing the warm heart beating beneath a gallery of eccentric anti-conformists.
He has gathered a cast that includes old mainstays of his days at the Hangar—Macdonald as the frosty Wall Street Mr. Kirby, father of Alice’s intended, Tony and Dane Cruz as the fireworks-obsessed Paul Sycamore; colleagues of his Syracuse days, including a rascally Rodney Hudson as Grandpa Vanderhof; and a number of other members of the Hangar family (several from “A Christmas Carol”). Helen Clark is back in town, in toe shoes, as Essie; Karl Gregory delightfully chewing the little scenery as her ballet teacher Kolenkhov, while Sandrinne Edström (Little Red this season) and Joshua Sedelmeyer (Fred in “A Christmas Carol”) play the young lovers with verve.
Moss whispers to me “I love rehearsals more than anything.” His concentration is on the many entrances and exits, working to refine the timing. Much of the comic payoff in this classic style of older Broadway is the constant switching of energies, as there is always another sharply etched character to take up the reins momentarily in the sparkling orchestration of the text.
Back at the American Eagle spot, Godfrey Simmons, Jr. is busy working an intimate scene between Carley Robinson as the idealistic Beneatha Younger and Robert Edwards as her African suitor, the activist Joseph Asagai. Edwards is stretching his wings after a season with the Hangar Lab Company.
Simmons, who leads Ithaca’s Civic Ensemble, has just been announced as the next Artistic Director of Hartbeat, a multicultural theater in Hartford, CT. One of his early roles at Cornell as a visiting professional was Walter Younger.
Later a scene between the mother, Lena, her daughter-in-law Ruth and Beneatha. Ashley Bufkin, who was an astonishing Jo in ‘Little Women’ brings her energy to the embattled Ruth. IC’s Cynthia Henderson inhabits Lena. Henderson also has previous experience with this magnificent play: she was Ruth to Gloria Foster’s Lena, and later was mentored by the great Lloyd Richards, the original director of the play.