By Christopher Arnott
4:20 PM EDT, September 5, 2013
A year ago, Hartford Stage announced that they'd found a new artistic director. Michael Wilson had left the theater after 13 years to concentrate on Broadway opportunities, scoring immediately with revivals of The Best Man and The Trip to Bountiful.
The new guy, Darko Tresnjak, was pretty well known to Connecticut theatergoers for shows he'd done at Long Wharf (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Goodspeed Opera House (A Little Night Music, Amour) in the early '00s. Tresnjak returned to both theaters more recently to helm productions of Carnival and City of Angels (at Goodspeed) and Bell Book & Candle (Long Wharf). In between, he'd been artistic director of the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival in San Diego.
In his first season, Tresnjak has brought genuine buzz and excitement to Hartford Stage by directing a hit production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and an important staging of the new musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, and overseeing a visit by Mikhail Baryshnikov (in Man in a Case, an adaptation of two Chekhov stories). The 2013-14 season shows equal promise, starting with a bold reminder that Hartford Stage began in the 1960s as a repertory company. The same cast will alternate, Sept. 12 through Nov. 10, in productions of the Marivaux comedy La Dispute and Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, both directed by Tresnjak. The rest of the season includes a coproduction with New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre of The Underpants, Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's century-old German comedy (Jan. 9 through Feb. 9); Noel Coward's melodrama A Song at Twilight (Feb. 20 through March 16); the East Coast premiere of the '60s-set Puerto Rican empowerment drama Somewhere (April 3-27) by Matthew Lopez (of The Whipping Man game), starring Priscilla Lopez; and, May 22 through June 22, the new musical Love and Other Fables, about the fabled Aesop himself, by Jay Jeffries and John McMahon. In refashioning Hartford Stage, Tresnjak pays tribute to his forebears: he's maintaining the tradition of staging Dickens' A Christmas Carol (Nov. 29 through Dec. 28) and bringing in Mark Lamos, the theater's artistic director from 1980 to 1997 (and currently the artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse) to direct A Song at Twilight.
heaterWorks, known as "Hartford's Off Broadway," also saw big changes last year, with the retirement of its founder Steve Campo and the ascension of regular director Rob Ruggiero to the producing artistic director post. Like Darko Tresnjak, Ruggiero had done some distinctive directing at the Goodspeed Opera House (most recently Carousel and Show Boat) and elsewhere. Theater Works' 2012-13 season is ending with Time Stands Still, the latest drama from New Haven-based Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies. The 2013-14 season comes on strong, with the October opening of Mrs. Mannerly by Jeffrey Hatcher (the prolific playwright who revised the script for the recent Long Wharf revival of The Killing of Sister George and wrote the book for the biomusical Ella). Ruggiero will direct a yet-to-be-detailed Christmas-themed show in December, followed by Mark St. Germain's Off-Broadway sensation Freud's Last Session (Jan. 17 through Feb. 23), in which the famed psychoanalyst meets the spiritual novelist C.S. Lewis. Ruggiero also directs The Other Place, Sharr White's recent New York hit; that one is a coproduction with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and plays in Hartford March 14 through April 19. From May 16 through June 22, the attraction is LOVE/sick, by the same author (John Cariani) and director (Amy Saitz) responsible for TheaterWorks' 2012 production of Almost, Maine. A tribute to Woody Guthrie, Woody Sez, plays Aug. 8 through Sept. 14 of next year. (theaterworkshartford.org.)
Hartford's big "presentation house," the Bushnell (bushnell.org) typically gets first dibs in Connecticut on the first national tours of Broadway musicals. This year the Bushnell Broadway Series features Miss Saigon (Sept. 17-22), Flashdance the Musical (Oct. 15-20), A Christmas Story (Nov. 12-17), War Horse (Jan. 28 through Feb. 2), Peter and the Starcatcher (Feb. 18-23), The Book of Mormon (March 18-30) and Ghost the Musical (June 10-15).
Hartford area theater also includes comedy shows and dance concerts (from Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, Oct. 5 to Savion Glover's Sole Sanctuary on Nov. 1) at UConn's Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs (jorgensen.uconn.edu). UConn also offers high-quality student-acted theater and puppet performances. Trinity College has a wonderful theater department as well, and keep an eye on the Hartt School for recitals, dance concerts and full productions of shows you can't see every day, like the stage version of John Irving's The Cider House Rules (Oct. 10-13) and the musical Barnum (Oct. 24-27).
P.T. Barnum? That's another proud Connecticut name to add to loyal local talents like Rob Ruggiero, Mark Lamos, the newly resettled Darko Tresnjak, Donald Margulies and other Nutmeg State treasures who've helped give theater in Hartford a national reputation.