June 14, 2007
Michael Hollinger's 'Red Herring' Expands Iowa Summer Rep's 'Comédie du Jour'
Iowa Summer Rep's "Comédie du Jour" festival will expand with the opening of Michael Hollinger's hilarious Cold War-era fable, "Red Herring," at 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 26, in the David Thayer Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. Other performances will be at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, June 27 and 28; at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 1; and at 8 p.m. July 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 15.
Amidst the Red Scare of the early 1950s, noir-ish detective Maggie Pelletier has to discover the origin of a Russian spy ring, solve a murder, rescue the daughter of Joe McCarthy, unveil the atomic secrets hidden inside a box of Velveeta Cheese, and find who dumped the dead guy in the harbor -- or else lose out on a honeymoon in Havana.
"'Red Herring' is many things -- a satire of 1950s mores and political intrigue; a send-up of hard-boiled, gumshoe mysteries; a riff on classic comedies of mistaken identity; a tour-de-force for actors who play multiple quick-changing roles," explains director Mary Beth Easley, who is directing in Iowa Summer Rep for the 13th time. "At its heart, though, the play is a fable -- about fidelity, the misfires of attraction, the complexity of love and marriage. . . . and, of course, the composition of Velveeta cheese."
"'Red Herring' is a fable about marriage," Hollinger says. "I didn't know that when I started; when I started, I thought I was writing a comic detective story set in New England. But I've learned over time that the plays tell the playwright what they're about, not the other way around. After 10 years of being married myself, I guess I was ready to say a few things about wedlock.
"Here's how my old collegiate dictionary defines "fable": 1. a short tale to teach a moral; 2. a story not founded on fact; 3. a story about supernatural or extraordinary persons or incidents, legend; 4. to speak falsely, lie; 5. to describe as if actually so; talk about as if true. I'd like to think all the meanings apply to 'Red Herring,' because they suggest a dark, colorful, strange, fantastical world -- one that tells the truth by lying. 'Red Herring' is a fable in the same way that 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'As You Like It' are fables, as are certain American musicals of the 1950s. ('Guys and Dolls' is subtitled 'A Fable.')
"The three couples in the play -- in their early 20s, mid 30s and late 40s -- show three stages of relationship, with decreasing amounts of naiveté and increasing number of 'cracks in the plaster' as they grow older. Recognizing one's own brokenness and that of one's partner is, I think, a key notion in 'Red Herring.' Maggie describes herself and Frank as 'two ordinary people in an imperfect world who happen to love each other something fierce.' When these couples ultimately get together, they do so without romantic illusions, warts intact."
Hollinger says he was long attracted to the comic noir style, but that interest gestated for many years before it took form in "Red Herring." "Somehow, the title 'Red Herring' came to mind," he says. "I thought, 'This is such a great title for a detective play, it must have been done before.' Happily, I couldn't find any other plays by that title. Since 'red' evoked the Red Scares of the McCarthy era and 'herring' evoked New England fisheries, I narrowed the period to the early 1950's and the setting to Boston.
"Since I wanted the McCarthy era, I built my spy story around the development of the hydrogen bomb rather than the atomic bomb. In researching the period, I discovered that the first H-bomb test took place on Nov. 1, 1952, just a few days before the presidential election of Dwight Eisenhower. Perhaps because his two terms in office help define the 1950s (in the same way Ronald Reagan's administration helps define the 1980s), I liked the idea of ending the play with Ike's election and the news of the successful H-bomb test. Together, Ike's election and the H-bomb test are important icons for the decade -- of 'domestic peace and prosperity' under the shadow of the Cold War arms race.
"Working out the five interlocking plots -- spy story, murder mystery, and three love stories -- just about killed me. Since my other three full-length plays took place in single settings with a small number of characters, I wanted to do the opposite with this play, exploring instead multiple settings and character doublings. I thought a lot of the fun would come out of watching the same half dozen actors transform themselves to play many parts throughout the evening, so that at curtain call you somehow can't believe there were only six of them."
Other artistic contributors to the Iowa Summer Rep production of "Red Herring" include scene designer Mark A. Parrott, costume designer Jenny Nutting Kelchen, lighting designer Bryon Winn and sound designer Mark Bruckner.
Hailed as one of America's brightest new comic voices, celebrated for his razor-sharp wit and clever wordplay, Philadelphia-based Michael Hollinger is rapidly becoming one of the most successful and widely produced playwrights in this country and beyond. His plays have been produced in New York, in regional theatres around the country and throughout Europe. A production of his "Opus" opens off-Broadway this summer.
In addition, Hollinger has written three short films and co-authored the feature-length "Philadelphia Diary" for PBS.
His growing list of honors and achievements ranges from the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays to the Barrymore Award for Outstanding Play.
Artistic director Eric Forsythe, a faculty member in the UI Department of Theatre Arts, describes this year's Summer Rep festival as "a deft and colorful smorgasbord of plays: mixing into the salad something of the wildman craziness of a Steve Martin, say, with the wry emotional density of Chekhov and a touch of Noel Coward's wit. Hollinger is absolutely unique -- clever and wise by turns."
Dinners before the evening shows will be offered again this year. A choice of several entrees, desserts and beverages will be available on the outdoor patio overlooking the Iowa River starting at 6 pm, Wednesday through Saturday evenings. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Call 319-335-3105. Reservations will be taken beginning May 1.
Iowa Summer Rep is an U/RTA (University/Resident Theatre Association) company employing Equity actors and stage managers, as well as students who earn points toward their Actors Equity card.
Iowa Summer Rep has carved out a unique niche in American professional summer theater by presenting single-playwright festivals.
Iowa Summer Rep 2007 is supported by the University of Iowa Community Credit Union.
Tickets for "Red Herring" are $24 ($20 for senior citizens, and $12 for UI students and youth). Tickets may be purchased in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.
Tickets may also be purchased at a substantial discount as part of a Summer Rep subscription package. The other Holliger plays are "Incorruptible," June 21-30, and "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf," July 12-21.
Series packages for "Comédie du Jour" are $58 ($48 for senior citizens, and $30 for UI students and youth). Subscription packages will be available until "Incorruptible" closes on June 30. A brochure is available from the Hancher box office, or from the Department of Theatre Arts: 319-335-2700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets may be purchased 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at http://www.hancher.uiowa.edu. For phone or ticket-window purchases, the box office is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays.
From the local calling area, dial 319-335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial 319-335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.
Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.
The Department of Theatre Arts is a unit of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
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