Vermont Stage approaches the cutting edge comfortably
“The Bake Off,” this week at Burlington’s FlynnSpace, is just one of many indications of how far Vermont Stage Company has come over the past three seasons — likely becoming the state’s foremost year-round professional theater company.
The brainchild of VSC’s artistic director of the aforementioned three years, Cristina Alicea, “The Bake Off” divides a popular play into three parts, each presented by a different director and cast.
This year, the play was Christopher Durang’s wacky comedy, “Beyond Therapy,” and the cast changes Tuesday were made mid-scene — seamlessly and hilariously.
But “The Bake Off” is merely window dressing to Alicea’s tenure at the helm of Burlington’s resident professional theater company. Much more importantly, she and her company have refreshed the Vermont theater scene with work that is both challenging and entertaining.
This past season serves as an example. Opening was a refreshed approach to Yasmina Reza’s hit comedy of intellectual pretension, “Art,” contrasted with the intense psychological family drama of Jon Robert Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities.” And the company premiered a Vermont play, Greg Pierce’s quirky and surreal drama “The Quarry.”
Still, the pièce de résistance of Vermont Stage’s 2013-14 season was David Ives’ dark and sexy black comedy “Venus in Fur.” Alicea herself directed this delicious two-character battle of the sexes. Not only was it riveting and funny, it was well out of the mainstream of the rest of Vermont’s theater season — which was pretty ordinary.
That production was also emblematic of another refreshing policy of Alicea’s. One of the two actors was from New York, the other, Jordan Gullikson, a particularly fine Vermont professional. Alicea regularly casts excellent Vermont actors, adding those from New York when necessary or desirable, benefitting all.
Alicea came to Vermont from Washington, D.C., where she was assistant to the managing director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Previously, while in New York, she directed more than 20 plays, most of which were new pieces by emerging playwrights. She earned her bachelor’s degree in theater at George Mason University.
After more than a decade with Mark Nash at the helm, Alicea proved an inspired choice for Vermont Stage. Nash, a well-respected veteran, had been more traditional in his choice of repertory. He also tended toward favoring New York actors. (Nash’s fine, locally inspired holiday creation, “Winter Tales,” continues as an annual event at Vermont Stage).
In her first season, 2011-12, Alicea revealed her passion for quirky but first-rate theater with Anna Zeigler’s feminist “Photograph 51” and Sarah Ruhl’s oddball contemporary comedy, “The Clean House.” And she instituted the first “Bake Off” with Ruhl’s comic take on the Greek legend, “Eurydice.”
Alicea also came along at a good time for Vermont theater. Just two years ago, White River Junction’s Northern Stage fired its founding artistic director, Brooke Wetzel Ciardelli, for undisclosed reasons that were not related to ethics. Before she left, Ciardelli had created the state’s most successful year-round theater with a budget nearing $2.5 million.
Ciardelli was a brilliant theater manager in that all this happened with only short dips into the red. She was — and is — also an excellent director. Her swan song was a truly compelling production of John Logan’s “Red” in March 2012.
Upon her departure, Northern Stage immediately dumbed down, both its quality of performance and choice of repertory. This past season, however, shows signs for optimism — including plans to build a new theater.
Alicea, in many ways, seems to be taking on Ciardelli’s mantle. Not only does she manage a thriving theater company, she is introducing excellent performances of intriguing plays.
Alicea just announced Vermont Stage’s 2014-15 season and the trend toward unpredictability continues: Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Oct. 8-26; “Winter Tales,” Dec. 10-14; “Or,” by Liz Duffy Adams, Jan. 28-Feb. 15; Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl,” March 11-29; “The Mountaintop,” by Katori Hall, April 22-May 10; and “The Bake Off,” June 16-21. (For information, go online to www.vtstage.org.)
Vermont theater — with Cristina Alicea’s help — is looking good.
Jim Lowe is arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.