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Steppenwolf Theatre Company announces new season

Anna D. Shapiro's first season includes an expanded subscription slate and the opening of the 1700 Theatre.

Photograph: Saverio Truglia
Anna D. Shapiro

Steppenwolf Theatre Company today announced its 2016–17 season, the first to be programmed by the company’s new artistic director, Anna D. Shapiro, and her artistic staff. (See my new in-depth interview with Shapiro.)

And it’s a densely packed announcement, revealing an expanded lineup of six plays in the subscription season, an additional off-season world premiere in the Upstairs Theatre, and the first programming for the 1700 Theatre, the recently announced black-box space set to open this May.

The subscription season includes world premieres by David Rabe, Erika Sheffer and Tracy Letts, alongside the Chicago premieres of recent and highly acclaimed works by writers you might previously have associated more closely with New York’s downtown scene than with Steppenwolf’s mainstage: Lucas Hnath, Young Jean Lee and Taylor Mac.

The subscription season includes: 

Visiting Edna, about the struggle for connection between a cancer-stricken woman and her adult son. The second new play by Tony winner Rabe, who turns 76 this week, to premiere in Chicago within a year, following the Gift Theatre’s staging of his Good for Otto, Edna will be directed by Shapiro and feature ensemble actors Ian Barford, K. Todd Freeman and Sally Murphy (September 15–November 6 in the Downstairs Theatre).

The Fundamentals, a Steppenwolf commission, reunites Russian Transport playwright Sheffer and director Yasen Peyankov for a story about a single mother and housekeeper in a luxury hotel who must decide what kind of compromises she’s willing to make for the opportunity to move up into management. Ensemble actors Alana Arenas and Alan Wilder will be among the cast (November 10–December 23 in the Upstairs Theatre).

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians examines a megachurch pastor who suffers a crisis of faith. It premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New Plays in 2014 before going on to an acclaimed Off Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons last year; K. Todd Freeman directs the Chicago premiere (December 1–January 29 in the Downstairs Theatre).

Straight White Men, experimentalist Young Jean Lee’s examination of privilege via the traditional narrative form of the father-son play, will get a Chicago premiere directed by the playwright herself, with ensemble actors Tim Hopper and Alan Wilder in the cast (February 2–March 19 in the Upstairs Theatre).

Steppenwolf ensemble member Tracy Letts, whose new play Mary Page Marlowe begins previews March 31, claims the same slot next season with Linda Vista. The world premiere centers on a middle-aged divorced man named Wheeler, “a modern misanthrope” whose escape from his ex-wife’s garage into his own apartment offers the potential for growth. A director remains to be announced, but Ian Barford and Tim Hopper are on tap for the cast (March 30–May 21, 2017 in the Downstairs Theater).

Playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac’s Hir, a recent Off Broadway sensation also at Playwrights Horizons, follows Isaac, a PTSD-stricken soldier who returns home from Afghanistan to find his younger sister has come out as his transgender brother, Max, and their mother, Paige, is reveling in her newfound chaotic freedom after her abusive husband loses his power. No director is yet attached to Mac’s play, which our colleagues at Time Out New York called “a dizzying theatrical Tilt-a-Whirl” with “a ringing voice all its own.” The cast will include ensemble actors Francis Guinan and Amy Morton (June 29–August 20, 2017 in the Downstairs Theatre).

In the summer 2017 slot in the Upstairs Theatre will be the world premiere of Pass Over, a street-corner riff on Waiting for Godot by rising playwright Antoinette Nwandu, a recipient of the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. In the play, the routine of two young black men standing on the corner, shooting the shit and waiting for change, is interrupted by the unexpected intrusion of a white man. Ensemble actor Jon Michael Hill, who’s performing in the summer slot this year in Nick Payne’s Constellations, will return to appear in Pass Over next summer; a director is TBA (May 25–July 2, 2017).

But wait, there’s more: Steppenwolf plans to introduce its newest space, the 1700 Theatre, this spring, opening with a touring production of a comedy starring ensemble member Laurie Metcalf. Voice Lessons, by Justin Tanner, features Metcalf as a deluded community theater actor who hires a vocal coach, played by French Stewart (best known for TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun), to rocket her to fame. Metcalf, Stewart and castmate Maile Flanagan originated their roles in the show, directed by Bart Delorenzo, at Hollywood's Zephyr Theatre in 2009 (May 31–June 12).

Also this summer in the 1700 Theatre: a much-deserved transfer of Byhalia, Mississippi, a co-production between The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company that recently played the Den Theatre. Evan Linder’s play, directed by Tyrone Phillips, is a smart, funny and nuanced consideration of the current state of racial relations in a small town with a charged history on the subject, by way of a white couple whose newborn child raises an unexpected rift (July 22–August 21).

The 1700 Theatre, located behind the new café and bar Steppenwolf is developing with BOKA Restaurant Group, will also be home to a new series that Steppenwolf is calling Lookout, featuring multi-genre performance and diverse voices; further Lookout programming for this summer is expected to be announced in April.

And finally, Steppenwolf has announced a new membership program, the Steppenwolf Black Card. The Black Card is an effort to find a balance between the commitment of a subscription and the flexibility of single-ticket purchasing; it comes with six credits good for any production, any time, valid for one year, and offering easy exchanges, restaurant and bar discounts and additional perks. The Black Card comes in three levels: Anytime ($70/credit), Weeknight (good Sunday–Thursday, $50/credit) and Preview (good early in a production’s run, $30/credit). 

Black Cards go on sale August 1. Traditional subscriptions are on sale now, with one adjustment: Subscribers will see all four Downstairs Theatre shows, and take their pick of one of the two Upstairs Theatre productions.

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