Dominic P. Papatola
Few theaters do old-fashioned repertory anymore — the practice by which a company, using many of the same actors, stages two or more plays over the same weeks on a single stage.
If you employ Equity actors, rep is expensive. For the actors, technicians and directors, rep is hard. Still, a midwinter repertory is being undertaken beginning this weekend at the Minneapolis Theater Garage. There, tiny Cromulent Shakespeare Company is taking on two titanic plays, Shakespeare's "Richard III" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a stage adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel.
Using a company of 22 nonunion actors — 16 of whom appear in both shows — the company will share a stage, a set, even some costumes to tell two epic tales. Directors Leah Cooper and Tim Jopek auditioned close to 100 actors to cast the shows and have been splitting rehearsal time since December.
"Each of us got a handful of actors who are just in one show," said Jopek, who's directing "Richard III." "After that, it was kind of like a fantasy football draft. I'd need one sort of performer, she'd need another sort, and we shared the folks we both liked."
Jopek was one of the founders of Cromulent, which was formed in the mid-1990s and in recent years has been best known for its productions of "Shakespeare in the Park." When the theater's board came up with the idea of a midwinter repertory, board member Bethany Ford reached out to Cooper, with whom she'd worked on a small-theater production of the comedy "Anton in Show Business" in 2007.
"The concept seemed cool," said Cooper, who's helming "Hunchback." "And the idea of repertory seemed cool; it gives you these images of summer stock theater. The problem here is that this isn't summer stock. We don't have all day to play and rehearse. We share a tech week (the painstaking final week of rehearsals when lights, sound, costumes and makeup are added). And we open the same week."
"This is classic small theater," Cooper added wryly. "Filled with ambition and not a penny in their pocket. It's crazy. But we're doing Shakespeare and something as crazy-big as Shakespeare, so it's probably just as well."
Directing a large-scale show on a small-scale budget is a difficult enough task, but when two shows have to share time, people and resources, the puzzle gets even trickier. Costume designer Rae Lundquist, for instance, has developed clothing that can do double duty: Take off a costume, turn it inside out, add a belt and — voila! — a French peasant from "Hunchback" becomes an English nobleman from "Richard III."
It has been an education for the actors who have to keep the five or six characters they might be playing straight in their heads. And for the directors, as well: Jopek and Cooper said they have gotten better at listening to their casts and collaborators. And they've tried to loosen the grip directors try to maintain on their productions.
It won't be high-gloss, high-tech theater. Cooper said the budget for the set at the Garage is just $600. But she shrugs off concerns that her company won't be able to make the theater's 13 1/2-foot ceilings seem like the heights of Notre Dame. Realism in theater is difficult to obtain, she says, even if your scenery budget is $6,000, $60,000 or $600,000.
"This town can be obsessed with realism in theater," Cooper said. "But sometimes, they wind up going halfway with it. Instead of that, we decided to keep the infrastructure simple, but in terms of the emotion and the commitment, we want to go all the way."
Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at 651-228-2165.
What: "Richard III" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," staged in repertory by Cromulent Shakespeare Company
When: "Richard" opens at 7:30 p.m. today, "Hunchback" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday; performances alternate Tuesdays-Sundays through Feb. 28
Where: Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 Franklin Ave. W.
Tickets: Free Tuesdays and Wednesdays; $15-$12 Thursdays-Sundays