Snappy, detailed choreography deconstructs an otherwise dense dramatic text. Spry music and quirky, deadpan humor keep an audience on its toes. Precision, rhythm, balance. These are signature elements of the physically infused Theatre Movement Bazaar, the husband/wife team of Richard Alger and Tina Kronis.
Last spring, co-artistic directors Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti of Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court invited Kronis and Alger to pitch ideas for a possible collaborative project on Boston Court’s mainstage. Thus began TMB’s fifth creative immersion into the writing of Anton Chekhov with The Treatment. The premiere of this adaptation of the Chekhov short story Ward 6 opens Saturday.
When Innovators Meet
Theatre Movement Bazaar has created several award-winning productions in Los Angeles with ample critical acclaim. Theatre @ Boston Court has done much the same since opening its doors in 2003. The pairing of these two powerhouses of the 99-seat theater scene seemed a natural fit.
“We were both huge fans,” Kubzansky says, explaining how the invitation to TMB evolved between her and Michetti. “We were truly excited to invite Tina and Richard to create something here.”
The Treatment was conceived by Alger and Kronis and developed with the usual TMB process — with text adapted by Alger and direction/choreography by Kronis. It has all come to life under the watchful eye of Boston Court’s tag team of Kubzansky and Michetti, providing their own expertise in smart producing strategies for a new work in progress.
Kubzansky discusses a working relationship with Michetti that allows both Los Angeles directors to freelance at other venues while maintaining the rigorous schedule at Boston Court. “One of us is always here. It’s always the goal to help the artists who work here have the best experience they can possibly have.”
Part of that experience includes creating the right kind of rehearsal and performance parameters to serve a multi-layered production like Treatment, with evolving text and movement every step of the way before opening night.
“It’s why we build in previews with work days and days off to make adjustments before opening,” Kubzansky elaborates. “You can take it apart and put the whole thing back together again before you officially open for an audience.”
Alger and Kronis agree this system — although new to them — has worked. They have already had some previews which allowed them to gauge the work more carefully in front of an audience.
“At first previews seemed unnecessary,” Alger comments. “But we’ve learned how to take full advantage of it.”
“Having previews is an amazing luxury even with a small audience,” Kronis adds. “We’re making small adjustments all the time. We just added a line yesterday.”
The layers of movement, acting performance and song often come together with a sense of lighthearted play in Theatre Movement Bazaar’s work. But getting to that level of freedom takes careful planning and an engineering of text matched to physicality. After 14 years creating more than 11 projects, Alger and Kronis have developed a tight shorthand in the rehearsal room to achieve the TMB style.
“There’s always discovery to be made in watching someone else’s process,” Kubzansky says. “Watching Tina’s physical solutions that come about while working in the [rehearsal] room is really exciting.”
The Treatment features the acting ensemble of Mark Doerr, Mark Skeens, Matt Shea, Jake Eberle, Jacob Sidney and Nich Kauffman. This story takes place in a dilapidated mental hospital and chronicles the tricky relationship that emerges between one of its doctors and a patient. As in most of Chekhov’s work, the human balance of power is pulled sharply into focus, as the artists ask larger questions of what society presumes to call “insanity.”
Theatre Movement Bazaar began in New York City, relocating to Los Angeles in 1999 and has since produced work across the US and in the UK.
The Treatment marks the third Chekhov endeavor in a row for Alger and Kronis. Cherry Jam, an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, developed in 2011 at the California Institute of the Arts. Anton’s Uncles (based on Uncle Vanya) opened in Los Angeles, then toured to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Kennedy Center in 2009-2010. Before that, in 1999, the pair also experimented with adaptations of Three Sisters and The Seagull, produced by Sacred Fools in Hollywood.
However, adapting Ward 6, a short story rather than a play, proved a new challenge for the team and invited a completely new approach to transforming text for the stage.
“I’m forced to get rid of the idea that as a playwright I’m composing what’s going on as action,” Alger elaborates. “It forces me to focus on the dialogue that is about rhythm and being as efficient as possible with communicating ideas.”
As the text develops, it becomes Kronis’ job to define the movements that will inform the actors and pace the actions of the story.
“We’re constantly discussing. There’s no chit-chat about other things,” Kronis quips. “It’s like we’re cops or detectives. We’re always on the case. It helps being married.”
“When the text reaches a certain point, the objective is really about making it as clean and efficient as possible,” Alger continues. “The advantage of working with the director is that there is always someone right there editing, telling me it’s going on too much.”
“He’s very patient in that way,” Kronis chimes in.
Creating new work over the years has given Theatre Movement Bazaar a diverse line-up of projects in both content and style. From the Greek mythology-inspired Dry Cleaning (2005) to the juxtaposed Soviet cold war/American Dream frivolity in Monster of Happiness (2007) to the sparse examination of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Model Behavior (2009), all source materials serve merely as launching pads.
“There’s a lot of trust,” Alger responds. “Earlier in our work, things were much more abstract. As we’ve developed a way of working, we trust that something interesting will happen.”
“It’s highly layered and complex for the actors. It helps to get them up in front of an audience just to give them the courage to move forward,” Kronis adds.
With a mission of “modifying or neutralizing” text and a plan to “de-contextualize” source material, TMB uses theatrical elements of movement, music and (sometimes) multi-media to create surprising combinations on stage. The years of experimentation have fueled the company’s goal to “reinvigorate theater for a contemporary audience.”
“We like to program our season based on artists’ impulses,” Kubzansky says, referring to bringing in the Alger/Kronis team and adapting to their artistic needs.
“There’s always that little bit of a crap shoot when you’re working with new people for the first time,” Kubzansky adds. “But when they [TMB] said they’d have pages, they’d have pages and it was wonderful. It makes it all a thrill.”
Boston Court as an Incubator
“Tina and Richard do a kind of work that we love,” Kubzansky states. “We jumped at the opportunity to collaborate.” Kubzansky runs through the list of movement-based performances and unique theater creations Boston Court has played host to over the years””productions such as Echo’s Hammer (2005), the multi-media, martial arts epic Paradise Lost (2007) and Josh Chambers’ highly physical interpretation of Tartuffe (2009).
The Boston Court Performing Arts Center plays host to other live events in the arts, not just theater, and firmly states its dedication to artistic works “that are creative, bold and daring.” The diverse programming of the space itself includes a variety of concerts, poetry readings and even a tribute to silent film. The eclectic palate of the Theatre @ Boston Court fits snugly in this artistic home.
“We have a wide breadth of the kind of work we want to produce,” Kubzansky continues. “You have to see five or six shows here to really understand what we’re about as a producing company.”
With the Pasadena Playhouse just four blocks away, Boston Court sits in good artistic company — but with the mantle of serving a different kind of audience. The “beauty and challenge” of Boston Court is the relationship of the actual theater stage to the size of its 99-seat house.
“We have the ridiculous gift of this astonishing space,” Kubzansky states. “It’s intimate and we can give every play more or less what it needs. But because we have so few seats it behooves us to do plays that are taking risks and give you an experience that you can’t have anywhere else.”
The pursuit of risk-taking that serves artists as well as audiences doesn’t always balance in box office numbers. Keeping tickets for shows priced in the modest mid-$30s range, Boston Court is producing as nimbly as most small houses around Los Angeles.
“We are still a 99-seat house, even though we look like a million bucks,” Kubzansky says. “We have really inventive designers, a smart TD [technical director]…We are just as careful with our money as every other 99-seat house in Los Angeles.”
If Kubzansky has anything to say about it, homegrown collaborations like this will continue to occur and strengthen the experience for their audiences. A co-production with LA-based Furious Theatre Company is already on the calendar for next summer.
“We love text but we also love the full body sport of theater,” Kubzansky summarizes. “Tina and Richard have combined both in such a way that is really exciting for us.”
The Treatment, presented by Theatre @ Boston Court and Theatre Movement Bazaar. Opens Feb. 25. Thu-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through March 25. Tickets: $34. Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena. www.BostonCourt.org. 626-683-6883.
***All The Treatment production photos by Ed Krieger