Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the obvious.
In this case, the obvious thing is the Louisville theater scene’s lack of attention to the Modernist works of the late 19th century. We’ve got brand spanking new plays, we’ve got Shakespeare, we’ve got companies devoted to feminist theater and African-American theater, but if you wanted to see some Chekhov or Strindberg or Ibsen, your options were pretty slim unless you count post-modern and absurdist adaptations.
Now maybe this doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but we’re talking about some of the most important plays that have ever been written and a period of daring theatrical experimentation that helped define the ideas of 20th and 21st century theater.
As a young company, The Chamber Theatre is stepping into that gap and bringing the newer classics to the stage. Beginning Friday, Dec. 2, they’ll reintroduce Louisville audiences to August Strindberg’s 1888 play “Creditors.”
Martin French and Polina Shafran are both immigrants and relative newcomers to the Louisville scene. French is an Irish immigrant by way of New Orleans, and Shafran is originally Russian but grew up in Israel before moving to the United States for love. Upon their arrival, they both noticed an absence of some of their favorite playwrights.
Shafran echoes his sentiment. “That’s kind of the period we’re going for, because we both are interested in it and we both think that it’s less covered in this city,” she says.
The two — who are listed as co-artistic directors in The Chamber’s press materials — first crossed paths at the Alley Theater when French cast Shafran in a production.
As they developed a working relationship, Shafran decided French was the right director to approach with a project she wanted to get off the ground.
“I had this one-act play, the comedy by Chekhov, and I really wanted to work on it and was looking for somebody to pair with,” she explains. “And I started to talk to Martin, and he was very interested.”
That conversation led to last season’s “Chek-Mate.” While they worked on that production, they decided they wanted to make their collaboration official, and “Chek-Mate” became The Chamber’s first entrance into the Louisville scene.
For the 2016-17 season, the company is producing two shows, “Creditors” and Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” French says he wants to keep the season small: “Just the two, very small scale,” he adds. “Better to do two right than four nearly there. That’s the theory anyway.”
“Creditors” is a tragicomedy focused on the relationship between Adolph, an artist; Tekla, a novelist who also is Adolph’s wife; and Gustav, a teacher and friend of the couple.
French says he and Shafran chose the play because of the density of the material. “This one has always intrigued me,” he says. “It’s good because it explores humanity, it explores sexuality to a degree, it explores the woman’s place in the world.”
While The Chamber isn’t interested in creating radical adaptations of the classic works — you won’t see any cell phones and none of the lines will morph into Twitter posts — French is interested in bringing a modern understanding to the classic works, even in their problematic moments.
“You can regularly accuse August Strindberg of being misogynist … but his ability transcends his agenda,” says French. “I like to think what we’re doing gives a more feminist take on it. It has (Tekla) struggling in some ways against the stereotypes and the expectations.”
This focus on small scale extends beyond the size of the group’s season schedule and imbues their choices of plays as well as their methods of production. “(With) fewer people, the focus is completely on acting,” says French.
“Creditors” is a three-person cast, and the size allowed the company to get exactly the collaborators they wanted, says French. “It’s better getting a small cast and filling it with really top quality actors, like Michael Drury, like Ryan (Watson), and Polina.”
“Creditors” runs Dec. 2-3, 5, 8-9 and 10 at 7.30 p,m. at Vault 1031, 1031 S. Sixth St. There will be post-show discussions on Dec. 5 and 8. Tickets are $15, $12 for seniors, students and military. The Dec. 5 performance is an industry night show, and all tickets are $12 at the door — first come, first serve. Tickets for the rest of the shows can be purchased online.