August Strindberg’s ‘Playing With Fire’ With All Black Cast

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To share its innovative debut performance with a wider audience, August Strindberg Repertory will move its all black cast production of Strindberg’s “Playing With Fire” to the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, from June 15 to June 30, 2012 raising it to an Off-Broadway contract.

With this production, August Strindberg Rep becomes a resident company of the Gene Frankel Theatre. The play, one of Strindberg’s rare comedies, is translated by Ulrika Brand and newly adapted by Obie-winner Leslie Lee, Executive Director of Negro Ensemble Company. Directed by Robert Greer, the production is co-presented by August Strindberg Repertory Theatre and Negro Ensemble Company in association with Theater Resources Unlimited.

The production opened Off-off Broadway at New School for Drama, 151 Bank Street (West Village) on May 18 and will finish its scheduled run there on June 10.

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THEY ARE PLAYING WITH FIRE- L-R: Nathan James as Newt, the artist; Jaleesa Capri as Adele, his mistress; Toccarra Cash as Kerstin, his wife. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

“Playing With Fire,” one of Strindberg’s rare comedies, was written in 1893 after the playwright found himself involved in a love triangle within a love triangle within a love triangle. Leslie Lee has transformed its setting from a Swedish summer house in 1893 to a summer cottage of the black social elite in Oak Ridge, a neighborhood of Martha’s Vineyard, in 1926. That is around the time Oak Bluffs beach first became a mecca for the black upper crust from around the country.

The Original Strindberg Set

Strindberg’s original is set on the front porch of a summer house in the Stockholm archipelago. This adaptation places the play in a 1920’s beach house, Cape Cod-style, utilizing a two-story drop painted by set designer Angelina Margolis. The production will be transported intact to the Gene Frankel Theater, whose high ceiling can accommodate the high drop.

The polite society that flocked to “The Ink Well,” a section of the Oak Bluffs beach, has been chronicled in “Our Kind of People” (1999) by Lawrence Otis Graham. In the 1920s, that neighborhood first became a home for several generations of wealthy blacks who lived (and still live) in a sort of separate world, not unlike their counterparts in other ethnicities. Many people with ties to these families – through their shared schools, sleepaway camps, fraternities and cotillions – seldom admit their status to non-elite blacks. Leslie Lee mixed with this set as a young man; he was “socially acceptable” as a student of an Ivy League college.

Black Elitists Playing With Fire

“Playing With Fire” is a character-based comedy, populated with the Swedish version of Chekhovian characters. It seemed opportune to transport the play to another community, whose characters were fully-flavored and would support the comedy.

Leslie Lee says, “The people who moved to Martha’s Vineyard were creating a black upper crust: a hierarchy that reflects our own black intelligentsia, which was alienated from the rest of society and contemptuous of it. They were playing with fire.” He had, in the past, written a soap opera pilot about that period. For this adaptation, he sees his job as making the play as comical as possible in moments when it can be done. He doesn’t resist the temptation to take a jab at black elitists here and there.

In the play, a writer named Axel (modeled on Strindberg himself) visits his best friends, Kerstin and Knut, at their summer house. Knut is a painter who doesn’t paint and Kerstin is a writer who doesn’t write.

They live with and live off his parents. His father is a wealthy retired businessman with a checkered past. Also present is their younger cousin, Adele, a poor relation treated more like a servant than a family member.

Knut is having an affair with Adele but his father has his own plans for her. Both she and Kerstin have their sights set on Axel, who makes his getaway in the nick of time. Says Leslie Lee, “Each of them reacts according to their own quirky personalities. They are all playing with fire. They endanger their personal relationships and the integrity of their community.”

August Strindberg Repertory

The August Strindberg Repertory Theatre was founded in honor of Sweden’s great playwright and is committed to production of his plays in new translations and interpretations that illuminate the plays for today’s American audience. The company is particularly committed to new productions of Strindberg’s best and least-performed plays in fresh translations by leading translators.

Robert Greer (director) is founder and Artistic Director of August Strindberg Repertory Theatre and has directed numerous contemporary Swedish playwrights in their English-language premieres. These include Marianne Goldman, Helena Sigander, Cecilia Sidenbladh, Oravsky and Larsen, Hans Hederberg, Margareta Garpe and Kristina Lugn, Denmark’s Stig Dalager, Norway’s Edvard Ronning, and classics by Victoria Benedictsson, Laura Kieler, Anne Charlotte Leffler, Amalie Skram and August Strindberg.

His productions have been presented at the Strindberg Museum and Strindberg Festival, Stockholm; Edinburgh and NY Fringe Festivals, Barnard College, Columbia University, Rutgers, UCLA; Miranda, Pulse and Theater Row Theaters, La MaMa E.T.C., Manhattan Theatre Source, Tribeca Lab, Synchronicity, TSI , BargeMusic; and The Duplex in LA. He has also directed plays by Mario Fratti, Sartre and Corneille here in New York. He is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, the Broadway League, Actors’ Equity; the Strindberg Society, the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study and Swedish Translators in North America.

Ulrika Brand (translator) is a director and translator of Strindberg plays (“Crimes and Crimes” and “Playing With Fire”), a member of the Lincoln Center Theatre Directors Lab, and former member of Pacific Resident Theatre Co-op (Venice, California). She has also worked in the motion picture industry and handled public relations for cultural and educational institutions including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, and Columbia University.

Leslie Lee (adaptor) is a playwright and executive director of the Negro Ensemble Company. He was a founding artist of La MaMa E.T.C. His plays have been produced both on and off Broadway and he has also written for film and television.

His acclaimed play, “The First Breeze of Summer,” starring Leslie Uggams, enjoyed a successful revival in 2008 with the Signature Theatre Company. It was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and went on to win an Obie Award for Best New American Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award.

Subsequently, the play moved to the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where it received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. Lee is a 2008 Audelco Playwright Award Winner and has been nominated for a total of eleven Audelco Awards. His plays have been produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, the Black Rep in St. Louis and Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey.

His other plays include “The War Party,” “Colored People’s Time,” “Blues in a Broken Tongue,” “The Rabbit’s Foot,” “Black Eagles,” “Elegy to a Down Queen,” “Cops and Robbers,” “Hannah Davis” and several musicals, “Golden Boy” with Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, “Martin” with Charles Strouse and “Phillis” with Micki Grant. His awards include an Obie, the Outer Circle Critics Award, the Arthur Miller Playwriting Award, the Audelco Best Play Award, the Isabelle Strickland Award for Excellence in the Field of the Arts, the Joe A Callahan Award and a Tony Nomination.

For film and TV, Mr. Lee has written or adapted “The Killing Floor” (American Playhouse, Honorable Mention at Cannes Film Festival), “Almos’ A Man” (based on the story by Richard Wright), “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (based on the novel by James Baldwin) and “The First Breeze of Summer” (PBS Great Performances). Mr. Lee received an Emmy nomination for his documentary, “Culture Shock: Mark Twain.” He has taught playwriting and screenwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and at Rutgers University.

Eszter Szalczer (Dramaturg) is an associate professor of theater at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of “Writing Daughters: August Strindberg’s Other Voices” and “August Strindberg” (Routledge Modern and Contemporary Dramatists) as well as numerous articles and book chapters on Strindberg, both in English and Swedish.

The actors are James Edward Becton, Jaleesa Capri, Toccarra Cash, Elizabeth Flax, Jolie Garrett and Nathan James.

Set design is by Angelina Margolis. Lighting design is by Miriam Crowe. Costume design is by Lora Jackson. Casting director is Lawrence Evans.

Off-Broadway performances are at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street (East Village) from June 15-30. Previews are June 15-17 and the Off-Broadway opening is June 21. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM; Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $30 general admission, $15 for seniors and students. TDF is accepted. The box office is SMARTTIX (212) 868-4444, www.smarttix.com.

Jonathan Slaff is a New York publicist in the specialty of international cultural events. Jonathan and his writers keep us ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.