Setting 'Hostage' free on stage

A freewheeling Center Stage production of Brendan Behan's play turns the Head Theater into a cabaret/brothel.

February 13, 2000|By J.Wynn Rousuck | J.Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Center Stage doesn't know if it's ever been tried before, but artistic director Irene Lewis thinks playwright Brendan Behan would have liked nothing better.

The production of Behan's "The Hostage" that begins performances Friday, is being staged in a cabaret setting. Tables, chairs and a cash bar will all be part of the environmental design in Center Stage's flexible, upstairs Head Theater.

The setting seems like a natural for a play that takes place in an Irish boarding house/brothel/bar.

Written by Behan in Gaelic in 1958 under the title "An Giall," the action focuses on a British soldier held hostage in the brothel by a faction of the IRA. That may sound like dire subject matter for a cabaret, but "An Giall" underwent a considerable change in tone when it moved from Ireland to England.

Shortly after the play's Irish debut, British experimental director Joan Littlewood commissioned Behan to do an English translation for her Theatre Workshop. The playwright, however, "was way behind in delivering the pages and didn't feel like painting the same canvas twice," says James Magruder, dramaturg of the Center Stage production.

At that point, Littlewood stepped in and, with Behan's approval, put her stamp on the play, adding seven characters, a host of songs, changing the ending and substituting alcohol for the tea the characters originally drank.

Her adaptation, which has been fairly controversial among Behan scholars, turned a serious drama into a theatrical event "wedding the music-hall traditions to political satire and political material," says Magruder.

Director Lewis felt that moving the action from a standard proscenium stage to a fully functioning cabaret was the next logical step. "The way the play is set up, there's no way to present everything with any modicum of reality, so it frees you up to present other solutions for the pulse of life in this boarding house," Magruder explains.

"Actors will come through the audience," Lewis says. "Some actors will go directly to the bar in the back."

In turn, waiters and waitresses will do triple duty as stagehands and extras. "They'll go up [on stage] and dance when you need a crowd and sing when you need a lot of voices," she continues.

Center Stage's environmental approach, however, is intended to be completely non-threatening to the audience, with almost all of the action taking place on stage. "There's a playing area. It's not bleeding out into the entire space," says set designer Neil Patel reassuringly. "No one will have any floozies sitting on their lap, nothing like that."

A New-York-based designer who has designed eight shows at Center Stage since 1992, Patel began working on "The Hostage" over the summer, a few months earlier than usual, because of the demands of reconfiguring the room. However, he says, "we came to the basic shape very quickly."

Patel had designed two previous productions in the Head, but this is the first time he's been able to use the entire room as his set. "This space is exciting to me. You rarely get to work in this kind of space. It's a real room. It used to be a different space. It has real history and character. It's a nice, open space, which designers love," he says of the fourth floor theater, once the gymnasium and auditorium of Loyola College and Preparatory School, the building's previous occupant.

Patel, who has an undergraduate degree in architecture, was assisted in designing the initial floor plan by Lewis' husband, Mitchell Kurtz, an architect who has worked on a number of theaters and has served as a consultant whenever the layout of the Head Theater is altered.

The theater has been transformed into a cabaret twice before -- in 1993 for "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," and the next season for "Das Barbecu." One concern with this arrangement is the need to include as many seats as possible without sacrificing patron comfort. Kurtz' solution this time around was to add a single-row balcony, bringing the total number of seats to 370.

Another concern is the theater's movable two-story seating towers. Lewis is putting nine of these to novel use. With the seats removed, the towers will be located behind the basic set, where they will serve as bedrooms in the brothel.

"I've been dying to use the towers that way," Lewis says. "I'll use it as a wonderful panorama of rooms in the boarding house. You just pull a curtain in front of them. [It's] makeshift, which is what the play is. It's theatrical. It's not real."

"Makeshift" is also the word Patel uses to describe the look of the boarding house parlor, the play's central location. He envisions the building as a formerly elegant home or hotel that has fallen on hard times. "It's sort of a makeshift world where things get second uses," he says. "It's always nice, in a set, to create layers of ideas so it has richness to it and texture."

The feeling he hopes to evoke is that of a place with a history, even ghosts. "Fights have been going on in this room for 40 years," he says.

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