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When most people turn 80, friends and family might buy a cake and throw a party. But for playwright Edward Albee’s 80th birthday this month (March 12), two Detroit-area theaters are joining a handful of producers in and around New York to honor the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner with The Albee Season, a collection of shows that serves to remind audiences why – as a press note states – Albee is regarded as America’s foremost living playwright.
“It was a happy coincidence,” explained Courtney Burkett, a founding artistic partner of Breath Art Theatre Project and business manager of the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company, who is spearheading the local project. Since both theaters were considering an Albee play for their 2007/08 seasons, Burkett and Arthur Beer, chair of the university’s performing arts program, agreed that it only made sense for the two to jointly produce the show. But it was only after “The Play About the Baby” was scheduled that Burkett learned about The Albee Season. “So it WAS a lucky coincidence.”
The east coast productions span the playwright’s 50-year career, from his first work (“The Zoo Story”) to his latest (the world premieres of “Me, Myself and I” and “Occupant”). The local collaboration offers a contemporary script from the mid-1990s – one that is probably not well known to most theatergoers. “It’s a great play – kind of twisted, and definitely not very traditional,” Burkett said. “It’s very ‘Albee’ – (it has) a lot of the themes that are prevalent in a lot of his pieces: There is or there isn’t a baby; there’s an older couple and a younger couple, and the presence of death always permeates his work. People who are familiar with his bigger pieces will definitely identify with this piece, as well.”
So far, it’s been a smooth collaboration, said Burkett, who is directing the show. Both theaters provided the actors: The two older characters, Man (Peter Cody) and Woman (Wendy Wagner), were cast from Breathe Art’s auditions last fall, and Boy (David Kowalczyk) and Girl (Marissa Thorndyke) are students at the university.
But it’s set and lighting designer Mark Choinski who has the most challenging task. Because not only are the two theaters jointly producing the show, it will also be presented in two very different configurations: on the proscenium stage of the Marygrove College Theatre and in the smaller black box at Detroit’s Furniture Factory.
Such a unique endeavor will be an invaluable learning experience for her young actors, Burkett believes. “It’s important for our students to have the opportunity to perform in different kinds of venues.”
Plus, she noted, Detroit’s version of The Albee Season will give the local community an opportunity to sample the work of two theater companies, and experience how different venues can affect how a play is staged and performed.
Ultimately, however, Burkett believes Albee will be the star of the show. “His writing, his ideas and his themes are very complex and very fascinating,” she said. “I want people to come away from the show with a deeper understanding of who Albee is and what his work is about.”
‘The Play About the Baby’
Performances will be held Friday-Sunday, March 28 through April 6 at the Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit; and Friday-Sunday, April 11-13 at the Furniture Factory, 1462 Third St., Detroit. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. All tickets are $15. To reserve tickets, call the UDM Theatre Company Box Office at 313-993-3270. For more information, log on to http://www.breathearttheatre.com.