Remy Bumppo mounts the U.S. premiere of a new Louis XIV play
When I open a play, I just assume no one will come,” Remy Bumppo’s dapper artistic director James Bohnen says with an affable shrug.
Your initial reaction might be to meet Bohnen’s reductive self-assessment with “Fair enough” and a pat on the back. After all, only three of the 20-plus productions in Remy Bumppo’s ten years of existence (all but one directed by Bohnen) have been penned by American playwrights. The rest—works by Samuel Beckett, Simon Gray, David Hare, to name a few—are titles and authors who send theaterphobes running in the other direction, leaving behind only audiences interested in, as it were, proper theater.
In the city that gets most excited about its rock & roll storefronts and bedecks itself with Wicked paraphernalia, a traditionalist—even a consummate one like Bohnen—could easily get lost in the shuffle. Yet when he does open a play, audiences find an attention to detail, integrity of text and quality of acting on par with Chicago’s oldest top-drawer companies. Bohnen’s passion for non-American literature may generate some (silly) resistance to unfamiliar material, but with Remy Bumppo’s steadily growing audiences and firmly established credibility, the noteworthy company is proving itself something of an Aesop tortoise—in a good way.
This week Remy Bumppo ushers in the U.S. premiere of Nick Dear’s dense, dashing play Power. Detailing the thorny ascent to the throne of France’s Louis XIV—a man who technically became king at age five when his father died, but didn’t assume the job until age 22, after the death of his mother’s chief adviser—Dear’s heady historical drama is the kind that gave the company its studious rep.
“These people know how to argue with each other, because they’re playing for very high stakes,” Bohnen says of Dear’s characters. Factoring into the 17th-century young heir’s struggle to assume his rightful position are his fiercely matriarchal mother, a wealthy family friend, and a host of royal servants and associates, all of whom angle themselves politically or sexually to curry Louis’s favor, or distract or dissuade him from his ultimate goal.
“Watching how Louis has to form himself with all the pressures around him is fascinating,” Bohnen says. “It’s about how people create their own myth, or have their myth created around them.” Not surprisingly, Dear’s play, which originally premiered at London’s Royal National Theatre in 2003, has endless analogies to 21st-century politics.
“The language is muscular and contemporary, but completely germane to the characters,” Bohnen says. “If these people didn’t actually talk this way, they should have.”
You could say something similar about Bohnen. His own highbrow verbal jousting is so engaging to listen to that, if he’s not a character in a play, he probably should be. With his shock of white, tousled hair and proscenium-arch eyebrows forever pointing upward, as if to direct our attention to an idea floating above all of our heads, Bohnen could easily be a stringent academic from a brainy Tom Stoppard work.
First roped into theater while teaching history in then-hippiefied Colorado Springs in the 1970s, Bohnen has always been attracted to works of a historical bent. Which might explain the scarcity of American writers on Remy Bumppo’s season rosters. “We started out a country of anti-intellectual rebels, and 200 years later, that’s where we are,” Bohnen says plainly. “We’re like a 400-pound person sitting on the only couch in the world, eating a bag of Cheetos and farting on the rest of the planet.”
While unpretentiously spare in his evaluation of the theatrical status quo (“We don’t have the mechanisms to encourage writers to stay the course in American theater. It’s just not in our bones”), Bohnen also brings a quirky, avuncular optimism to his uncompromising work.
“Some of these [political] plays give audiences the finger, but I find that’s a very nice way to get audiences to talk back to you.”
Remy Bumppo is drunk with Power starting Wednesday 3.