Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

RMTC'S lineup for next season includes play about local theatre giant, two Pulitzer Prize combatants and a beloved Christmas tale

Hirsch comes home

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No work belongs on a Winnipeg stage more in 2013-14 than the one-man bio-play Hirsch.

The subject of the Stratford Festival production, John Hirsch, is a towering figure in Canadian theatre and casts an even larger shadow in this city. The Holocaust survivor and arts pioneer put Winnipeg on the theatrical map when he and Tom Hendry co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1958.

So artistic director Steven Schipper found himself in the peculiar position of bringing home a play about his mentor, the man who had recommended him for his current position a quarter-century ago. Hirsch, however, will not be presented at the John Hirsch Theatre at the RMTC mainstage but at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre next November.

Schipper unveiled his 24th playbill March 7 with a mainstage lineup highlighted by a stage version of the favourite holiday film A Christmas Story, a revival of Charlotte Brontë's ever-popular Jane Eyre and two plays that battled for the 1945 Pulitzer prize for drama: Harvey, an offbeat comedy about an eccentric man's friendship with a giant rabbit, which beat Tennessee Williams' autobiographical drama, The Glass Menagerie.

The season wraps with a pair of contemporary works: Kim's Convenience, about two generations of Korean store-owners struggling to make their lives matter amid the changing retail landscape of Toronto; and Good People, a comic Broadway drama about an out-of-work single mother trying to find the money for the Boston apartment she shares with her disabled daughter.

"When we were planning this season, we were looking for plays with redemption at the end," Schipper says. "We were hoping to create a series of happy endings for an audience that wants to be engaged and entertained and leave feeling great to be alive.

"In this cold, economic climate everyone needs a place to warm their souls, and in 2013-14 that place is the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre."

The title that may generate the most anticipation among Winnipeggers is A Christmas Story, set in 1940s Indiana, where nine-year-old Ralphie longs to find a Red Ryder BB gun under the tree. Philip Grecian, who wrote It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play -- a big hit for RMTC in 2009 -- dramatized the story, the film version of which was adapted from a novel by Jean Shepherd.

"We've been trying to get the rights to A Christmas Story for the past five or six years," says Schipper. "We were aware that every other city that has produced it sold every single ticket. One city brought back the show four years in a row."

In the schedule's primo January slot is Jane Eyre, the Gothic tale of a strong-willed orphan and her love for the unattainable Mr. Rochester. The adaptor, Julie Beckman, is a member of Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre, an award-winning company dedicated to transforming great literature into great theatre.

"We were looking for a hugely romantic story in the same vein as Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind," says Schipper. "Jane Eyre is acknowledged to be one of the top 10 romantic stories."

This will be the RMTC's third revival of The Glass Menagerie, about an aspiring young writer's last, desperate attempt to provide for his mother and sister before he makes his escape. Schipper says he is intrigued by the magic in the script and has some ideas about how to make it exciting. He has hired cinematographer Deco Dawson as part of the artistic team.

Over at the Warehouse, Hirsch is the anchor production.

"Hirsch is one of the sweetest choices any artistic director could ever make," says Schipper. "It is a brilliant new play about our founding artistic director and will open our eyes to where we came from, theatrically speaking."

Actor Alon Nashman and director Paul Thompson, the writing duo behind last year's Stratford première, will be in Winnipeg this summer to augment their script with more local content.

The Warehouse season launches with Venus in Fur, a David Ives two-hander about a writer/director auditioning women for the role of the dominatrix Wanda in his own stage adaptation of the classic S&M novella. The showdown of the sexes was nominated for a best-play Tony Award last year and won one for best actress Nina Arianda.

"It's one of the sexiest plays you will ever see," says Schipper.

RMTC's contribution to ChekhovFest 2014 will be David French's translation of The Seagull, the story of a famous actress, her writer lover, her playwright son and the free-spirited woman who upsets the artistic and emotional balance of their summer home. Winnipeg's Krista Jackson will direct.

The only première at RMTC next season is The Secret Annex by Winnipeg's Alix Sobler, currently performing in The Penelopiad at the Warehouse. It imagines that Anne Frank has survived the Holocaust and, at 25, is in New York is trying to find a publisher for the diary she wrote while in hiding. The only one interested wants major rewrites. The Secret Annex had been slated to debut this May at WJT but was bumped to next season; Sobler subsequently shopped her script to RMTC.

"Alix Sobler came to us with her new play and we liked it so much that we chose to produce it," says Schipper. "We're grateful to WJT for the development work they did on the script to date."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 C1

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