By Ken Trainor
Fresh from its most successful year, Festival Theatre is looking ahead to its 40th season in 2014.
"What's the old saying? 'Life begins at 40'?" says Belinda Bremner, former board chair of Festival and frequent director of Festival productions. "Our 40th is to be celebrated both for where we have been and where we are headed, celebrating those who founded it and made it flourish and those who will take it forward."
A few years back, Festival's brain trust wasn't altogether sure how far forward anyone could take Oak Park's only Equity theater company and the oldest professional outdoor classical theater troupe in the Midwest.
Debt from the past, declining audiences, the Great Recession and climate change have combined to make outdoor theater more of an artistic adventure than ever.
Yet Festival has expanded, adding indoor productions in the fall and spring, plus complementing their annual summer Shakespeare production with a (usually American) classic (Amadeus, this year, preceding Twelfth Night).
And it seems to be working. Last summer's Richard III set box office records, and current board chair Brad Bartels says Twelfth Night exceeded that total by 10 percent and Amadeus by 20 percent. Three of this past season's four productions were "recommended" by members of the Jeff Committee, and last fall's production of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me received two Jeff nominations (Kevin Theis and artistic director Jack Hickey for acting).
"We knew we had a challenge in front of us," recalls Bartels. "We were heartened by the tremendous quality of work in our first two productions [the spring show was Edward Albee's Seascape] but disappointed by the audience. So we were a little uneasy as we started the summer. Would folks enjoy what we did? Would enough folks even show up? We reviewed our budgets more than once and made some important choices — also known as cuts. And we hoped they would once again "like" us. They did — night after night."
So Festival is feeling optimistic, but if the arts community has learned one lesson in the last five years, it's "never rest on your laurels."
First and foremost, that means fundraising. Which is a long-winded way of introducing the upcoming 1940s radio-style "broadcast" of the classic Sherlock Holmes tale, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." The production, which will be held this Friday evening and Sunday afternoon at the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, stars the aforementioned Theis and Hickey as Holmes and Watson, respectively. The rest of the cast features Festival regulars Joe Bianco, Lucy Carr, Tony Dobrowolski, Jhenai Mootz (Festival's artistic associate), Mary Michell, and Mark Richard (who directed last summer's Amadeus). Longtime radio newsman Charlie Meyerson will serve as the announcer.
Why old-time radio, why Holmes, why the "Hound," and why now?
Bremner actually has family roots in radio.
"My mother worked constantly in radio in Chicago," Bremner recalls," and I grew up going with her and drawing on the backs of old scripts. I followed my mother into radio acting although there was much, much less by the 1970s. Up until a few years ago, I appeared frequently on Unshackled, the oldest continuously running live radio drama. In a way, this is an homage to the wonderful people who used to so lovingly produce it."
The 1940s was the heyday of radio entertainment in Chicago, Bremner says, with shows ranging from soap operas like Ma Perkins to crime shows like The Whistler to the adventures of Terry and the Pirates.
"Every Sunday night when I was little," she remembers, "I went to sleep listening to Holmes on the radio — or had it read to me. Everyone loves Sherlock Holmes. He's the most real non-real person. Since Arthur Conan Doyle created him, he has never been out of favor. People clamored for the stories, flocked to the plays, and adored the movies from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. They are addicted to the television shows, especially now with the dishy Benedict Cumberbatch.
"Holmes is immortal and part of the culture. Each generation rediscovers him and Watson. This production will be a great introduction to those who don't know him and a lovely chance to revisit for those who have already fallen under the spell."
"The Hound of the Baskervilles" is Conan Doyle's most popular Holmes adventure, set on the wild moors of Devon, England, where Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead, apparently of a heart attack. But the family is afflicted by a curse, it is said — a giant hellhound, who can be heard howling on the moors at night.
Holmes, of course, finds the case irresistible.
"Our first job will be to recreate the atmosphere of WVOP, our 'radio station,'" Bremner says. "The call letters honor our official sponsor, Visit Oak Park. The company will be in 1940s period clothes and we are encouraging the audience to dress in the period as well. It will give younger audience members a glimpse into the past and offer a chance to 'see with your ears.' That hideous hound is so much more terrifying in your mind than anything Hollywood could show you. The moors are bleaker and London is foggier in one's imagination."
The production benefits both Festival and the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, which is providing the venue, a wine and hors d'oeuvres reception on Friday (7 p.m.) and a full afternoon tea on Sunday following the 2 p.m. performance.
All the performers are donating their time and talents, and Festival decided to put all their efforts into fundraising this fall ("Midwinter's Tales" takes place on Dec. 7) with an eye toward the spring and summer. Hamlet will be the 40th anniversary Shakespeare production next summer in Austin Gardens. And in a bit of a departure, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest will be the companion production.
The future, of course, remains a challenge.
"One of our biggest challenges," Bremner says, "is competition, not only for dollars but also for attention. There is so much going on and only so many hours in the day and so many dollars to spend. In addition to donations and other support, we would welcome dedicated, passionate, enterprising, philanthropically experienced and connected souls to join us so that we can give back even more to our community."
But at the top of their wish list, Bartels quips, is "a weather dome over Austin Gardens — unseen by the audience but controlling the heat and keeping out the rain."
Not to mention any stray hounds from hell.