Spring Guide: Theater

Jay Scheib adapts Samuel R. Delany's epic science-fiction classic Dhalgren

In Bellona, a city somewhere in the Midwest, a disaster has occurred. The few citizens remaining negotiate an urban space in which scientific rationalism and civilized conduct no longer apply. A red sun haunts the sky by day; two moons hover in the night. Buildings burn but are not consumed. The geography of streets alters. Time twists. Disorder reigns. And director Jay Scheib has the privilege of translating all this chaos onto the stage. "It's horrifying," he says. "Really hard to do. It's just so huge."

On April 1 at the Kitchen, Scheib will debut Bellona: Destroyer of Cities, described as "part dance, part live cinema, part theater, part urban simulation for disappearing cities." He has derived the piece from Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany's sprawling, cyberpunk meditation on sexuality, race, and catastrophe. While some sci-fi luminaries (Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison among them) have termed the 1975 book unreadable, it has sold more than a million copies and attained the status of a genre classic.

After a day of rehearsal at the Performing Garage, Scheib reflects on what drew him to Dhalgren. Though its nearly 900 nonlinear pages do not readily suggest theatrical adaptation, he wanted to make a play of the novel even before he'd read half of it. He found himself attracted to the imagery of a damaged city and the troubling timeliness of Delany's concerns. "We're trying to tackle a piece that looks very unapologetically at race and gender in America in the '70s," says Scheib, "but it reads like it was written this morning. We're grappling with that."

Happily, Delany, who attended an early workshop of Bellona, approves of Scheib's adaptation. "It's quite wonderful to have your work interpreted by artists of such energy and vision—not to mention such theatrical intelligence," he wrote the Voice in an e-mail. Despite this authorial endorsement, Scheib and his cast (most of whom have read Dhalgren at least twice) have plenty to wrestle with. They need to animate an abstruse and disjunctive text, which includes several troubling passages that verge on the pornographic. During rehearsal, they had practiced a sequence involving group sex and scandalous language. Shirts were doffed, belts were loosened, a mattress's springs were strained, and Scheib was moved to answer questions such as, "Do I do that before or after I say, "Smell my dick'?"

Bellona marks Scheib's second attempt to stage sci-fi. It follows Untitled Mars (This Title May Change) in a venture he's named "Simulated Cities/Simulated Systems." Drawing on his fascination with technology and the resources that an associate professorship in directing at MIT permits him, the project weds theater and science. Untitled Mars employed research into aerospace and astronautics; Bellona will refer to civil engineering and urban planning. Though he has not yet discovered how to integrate those disciplines into this production, Scheib hopes they will provide insight into how Bellona functions. "It has been more or less forgotten and abandoned by the world outside it," he explains, "but nonetheless, it is an ongoing system. No one knows where the food comes from, why there's always beer. It's like a strange social experiment."

The showing at the Kitchen may simply mark the first iteration of this "strange, social experiment." Scheib has fantasies of producing the play in a specific site over the course of several days. "The way to do this project is to actually do it in a neighborhood," he muses. "The audience would have to travel around and live more or less by the rules or lack thereof." His desire to achieve a more naturalistic setting for the piece speaks to the competing impulses that animate his work—science fiction on the one hand, theatrical realities on the other. As to how the two will align in this project, Scheib admits, "I'm very, very scared."

'BELLONA: DESTROYER OF CITIES,' APRIL 1–10, THE KITCHEN, 512 WEST 19TH STREET, THEKITCHEN.ORG

SPRING THEATER PICKS

'Uncle Vanya'

Performances begin April 7

Moscow's Maly Theatre very nearly premiered Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. But after its head demanded extensive revisions, Chekhov took it elsewhere. Perhaps the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg can repair that century-old mishandling as they stage this mordant comedy at BAM. To celebrate Chekhov's 150th birthday, Lev Dodin directs his play about an old professor, a young wife, a disconsolate brother, a neglected daughter, a crusading doctor, and several chickens. BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, bam.org

'Enron'

Performances begin April 8

Even if Enron, Lucy Prebble's play, doesn't show a profit, it likely won't lose the billions that its namesake cost stockholders. Unlike the original, this Enron is a very good bet. A hit in London, it enlivens dreary financial discourse with clever staging: market analysts as barbershop quartet, Lehman Brothers as sinister Siamese twins. Innovative director Rupert Goold helps audiences negotiate the fiscal shenanigans. So why not join the smartest guys in the room and invest in a ticket? Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, telecharge.com

'Family Week'

Performances begin April 9

In the midst of the "Mommy Wars," journals and blogs resound with scuffles and sorties. Breast or bottle? Disposable or cloth? Helicopter parenting or the "good enough" variety? Of course, mothers continue to damage offspring long after their early years, as evinced in Beth Henley's play, helmed by film director Jonathan Demme for MCC. In this drama, set amid a recovery center, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Kathleen Chalfant, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Sami Gayle play a battle-scarred clan. Lucille Lortel Theatre, 21 Christopher Street, mcctheater.org

'The Really Big Once'

Performances begin April 13

Tennessee Williams occasionally depended on the kindness of strangers, but he more often relied on the goodwill of those he knew very well, such as Elia Kazan. Target Margin Theater has spent months researching the relationship between the two men, even restaging Camino Real, the Williams-written Broadway flop that Kazan directed. The Really Big Once, created by the company, explores that famous dud, arguing that it may actually have been "an important success." The Ontological Theater, 131 East 10th Street, targetmargin.org

'Passion Play'

Performances begin April 27

Passion plays may sound racy, but only those with a very particular fetish will actually find them so. These community-produced spectacles about the crucifixion, popular since medieval times, are the inspiration for Sarah Ruhl's triptych. The production, mounted by Epic Theater Ensemble, concerns three such pageants: one in Elizabethan England, one in Nazi Germany, and one in Reagan-era South Dakota. Mark Wing-Davey, who premiered Passion Play at Yale Rep, will again take up the cross for the New York debut. Irondale Center, 85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, epictheatreensemble.org

'Restoration'

Performances begin April 30

Michelangelo had it comparatively easy. When asked how he'd constructed something so divine as the statue of David, he replied, "You just chip away the stone that doesn't look like David." An art restorer doesn't have that luxury, particularly when it's the David itself that's chipped. In her new play, writer-performer Claudia Shear plays a Brooklyn-based conservator hired to freshen up that famed nude. Director Christopher Ashley helps Shear refine her act. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, nytw.org

'Oliver!'

Performances begin May 8

Consider yourself at 'ome. Or don't, actually. Elizabeth Meriwether (The Mistakes Madeleine Made, Heddatron), a mercurial and very funny writer, creates situations and characters more likely to discomfit audiences than welcome them. Warped by two childhood appearances in the Dickensian musical Oliver!, Meriwether has borrowed its exclamatory title for her dark comedy about the relationship between Oliver, a horny teenage boy, and an alcoholic retiree. Evan Cabnet directs the age-inappropriate shenanigans for Stagefarm. Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, thestagefarm.org

'Orifice Descending'

Performances begin May 15

For those who find Jean Genet's The Balcony—a scabrous, often-censored exploration of fascism, desire, and illusion—insufficiently perverse, consider this version by performance artist Vaginal Davis. Fifty years after The Balcony's New York debut at Circle in the Square, Ms. Davis reverses the play's geometry, shifting the action to a male brothel or "boydello" (likely rather sleazier than the one that opened recently in Nevada). At P.S.122, she creates an installation in which audiences can interact with the resident gigolos. P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue, ps122.org

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