Madison’s Forward Theater is feeling a good vibration

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A doctor, his female and male patients, and a vibrator. Was there ever a better prescription for an “examining room” comedy?

Forward Theater Company opens its 2010-11 season Nov. 4 at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts with Pulitzer Prize nominee Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” The play was both a 2010 Pulitzer finalist and Tony Award nominee.

“It’s a comedy, but not a sex comedy,” explains cast member and gay Madison actor Richard Ganoung. “It’s about the total lack of communications between men and women on many levels.”

The play, fresh from a Broadway run, marks the start of Forward’s second season, The company is one of two to rise from the ashes of the former Madison Repertory Theatre, another performing arts troupe that fell victim two years ago to mounting debt and a declining economy. But Forward has already made its mark, kicking off 2010 with the Midwest premier of Christopher Durang’s “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” It was a bold step for the new group, according to Ganoung.

“We scooped Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis with that one and now Christopher is a friend,” Ganoung, 52, says. “We also were the first to get the Ruhl play.”

In the current production, Ganoung plays Mr. Daldry, the husband of one of the female patients who visits the offices of Dr. Givings (Mark Ulrich) during the late-1800s – America’s Victorian Age. The doctor treats female “hysteria,” thought to be caused by a buildup of water in the womb, with a wonderful new vibrating device. The electric vibrator brings “relief” to his patients, but does little to cross the divide between the physician and his wife Catherine (Jessica Bess Lanius). She longs to be closer to her husband, but can only listen at the door to his office and live at the edge of his world.

“Given that it takes place in the 1880s, the play is remarkably contemporary,” Ganoung says. “That has to do with how we’re producing the play and Sarah’s dialogue. It’s … very accessible to 21st-century audiences.”

Ganoung was born in Lake Geneva and is best known to gay audiences for his role in the 1986 indie film “Parting Shots,” in which he appeared with Steve Buscemi and Stevens Point native Kathy Kinney. He came out after the film was released. Since then, Ganoung has made Madison his home, a concession to his life partner and his own sensibilities. Forward Theater Company provides him with an artistic outlet that reaches beyond what he can do on the stage.

The troupe is the only Actors Equity theater group between Milwaukee and Spring Green, the home of American Players Theatre. It also is one of the few companies nationwide that gives equal authority to its executive, artistic and advisory committees. Based on the fact that every opening night for the year has sold out and that the company was the recent recipient of a $75,000 grant from the city of Madison, the strategy appears to be working, Ganoung says.

The nature of the current production has raised curiosity among Ganoung and his fellow cast members about the sexuality of the American Victorian era. When the vibrator was introduced, it was one of the most popular home appliances after the iron, the toaster and the tea kettle.

“This period seems like a time when homosexuality would have flourished,” Ganoung says. “Homosexuality was banned during Victorian times, but lesbianism was not, because ‘nice girls didn’t do that.’ I’d love to be able to uncover information about men that were lovers during that period, but it just doesn’t seem available.”

Ganoung says he hopes that audiences will leave the play “with a desire to be open about who they are and what they want.”

“It’s the best way to bring us all together,” he says.

“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” runs Nov. 4 -21 at The Playhouse in Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Call 608-258-4141 or visit www.forwardtheater.com.

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