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Monday, September 25, 2023

URI Theatre presents a season to lose your head over

‘Marie Antoinette’ ‘opens the season on October 12

Tony LaRoche

Marie Antoinette likely wasn’t the first to live a life of conspicuous consumption and, obviously, she won’t be last. But it’s a tale worth revisiting.

The University of Rhode Island Theatre Department will do just that as it opens its 2023-24 season with “Marie Antoinette,” David Adjmi’s contemporary look at the ill-fated French queen – from her rise as a star of the masses to her place on the guillotine. The production is also part of the URI Honors Colloquium’s fall series, “Not Business as Usual: Business for the Common Good,” as an American tale of celebrity culture and irresponsible spending.

“It’s a fascinating look at the historical period through modern eyes,” said Paula McGlasson, who has returned as chair of the department on an interim basis. “That means Marie is going to look more like Madonna than a French queen. The play’s going to use ’80s costumes, props and trends to show that if your take on Marie was that she was decadent, selfish and narcissistic, that is not something that expired when her head was cut off. It continues.”

“Marie Antoinette,” which will be directed by URI professor Rachel Walshe, opens Oct. 12 in J Studio in the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road. The rest of the season also promises a mix of light and dark moments, featuring the dark comedy “Speech and Debate,” along with two opposing bloody tales during the spring semester – “Macbeth” and the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“The season the department has chosen is one of the best we have done for a long time,” said David Weber, a student representative on the committee that selected the season’s plays. “‘Marie Antoinette’ and ‘Speech and Debate’ are both incredibly well-written contemporary pieces that provide great acting and design opportunities for students. ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ are both classics with enormously recognizable names that can’t help but spur excitement among students.”

For the first time in memory, J Studio, URI’s blackbox theater that seats about 170, will host all four of the season’s mainstage productions. Because of construction at the Fine Arts Center last season, all four shows were held in the larger Robert E. Will Theatre. The change this year is to make sure theater students get experience in both types of venues, McGlasson says.

Staging the season in the cozier J Studio also influenced which plays were considered by the department.

“The shows we chose are all suitable and perhaps best performed in J Studio,” said McGlasson. “The plays this year are all shows that will thrive in that sort of compact, intimate environment, whether it’s a musical, Shakespeare or a modern comedy.”

The season’s second play, Stephan Karam’s “Speech and Debate,” which opens Dec. 7, will take audiences into a contemporary high school classroom, where three misfit students – a reporter on the student newspaper, a gay student and an aspiring actress and singer – team up to expose a teacher who is abusing teenage boys.

“The play is light and dark. You may be laughing watching scene two and then by scene four, you’re thinking, ‘wow, that’s a really serious issue to be dealt with,’” said McGlasson. “It speaks to themes that resonate, especially with student audiences. So it’s extremely popular on college and university campuses.”

The play, which will be directed by Weber ’24, a physics and theater major from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, is this year’s student-produced play in which students take on every job from actor to designer. Weber chose the play after reading through many to find the best fit for the student production.

“The truth to be found in a contemporary adolescent experience made the play stand out from all the rest,” he said. “‘Speech and Debate’ encapsulates the struggle of feeling talked down to constantly and fighting through problems when you have few people to turn to.”

On Feb. 22, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” will take over J Studio to start the spring semester. First performed around 1606, “the Scottish play” – as called by theater people afraid of a cursed production if they use the M-word – tells the story of the Scottish general Macbeth, who is told a prophecy by three witches that he will become King of Scotland – leading him, with the urging of his wife, to kill his way to the throne.

Because Shakespearean plays are in the public domain, production companies are free to shape them as they creatively please. URI last staged “Macbeth” in 1997, and McGlasson remembers it as a pretty scary version.

“I remember the witches,” she said. “We had a wild set. It had all these different levels and ramps. There was a lot of sword play. It was a pretty exciting show.” How it will be staged in February is still to be determined.

The season closes with the annual musical – “Little Shop of Horrors,” which combines a horror comedy and a rock musical, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken. The award-winning musical, which has had numerous revivals and was made into a 1986 film starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and Ellen Greene, is about a meek flower shop assistant, Seymour, who finds a chance for fame and fortune, thanks to a man-eating plant.

“We’ve never done Little Shop. We tried to get it the year before last and we couldn’t get the rights,” said McGlasson, who will direct the musical, which opens April 18. “So when we decided to use J Studio this year, I thought it was perfect for Skid Row, Little Shop’s main setting.”

McGlasson, who has directed nearly every URI musical since 1998, returns to direct for the first time since 2019. She will be joined by musical director Lila Kane, choreographer Dante Sciarra, and associate director Jimmy Calitri, a professor at Providence College.

“I love the music and the people I’m working with,” she said. “I have my old team sort of back together. The four of us are friends as well as colleagues. So I’m looking forward to that kind of stimulation.”

For a full list of show dates and times, go to the 2023-24 season webpage. Tickets for all shows are on sale now – online, in-person in Room H101 in the Fine Arts Center, or by phone at 401-874-5843.