Last December in a piece about the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Off-Ramp series, which is staged at the Grandel Theatre, I suggested that the Rep has so lost interest in its mainstage in Webster Groves that it "should consider vacating the Loretto-Hilton altogether." Yet it still came as somewhat of a surprise when the St. Louis Business Journal reported in March that the Rep is indeed contemplating a move to Grand Center in midtown.
The Business Journal story was followed by the obligatory denials. Rep staffers insisted that any discussion of future plans was being taken out of context, that it's a theater's obligation to project decades into the future. Perhaps we should accept the Rep at its word. Yet there is one caveat. On March 29 the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park which currently resides in Eden Park (much like our Forest Park) is moving forward on a study, to be completed as early as June, about the feasibility of leaving its current home and relocating in downtown Cincinnati.
What does that have to do with us? Simply this: As goes regional theater in Cincy, so it goes here. Hence, it's not far-fetched to expect the Rep to embark on the same kind of incremental leave-taking that already has begun in the Flying Pig City.
It often makes good economic sense for regional theaters to produce shows together, but the umbilical bond between the Rep and the Playhouse is more akin to a Pygmalion-Galatea relationship. One might even have cause to wonder who's calling the shots at the Rep. The Cincinnati influence is pervasive. In the recently concluded mainstage season, for instance, two of six shows (Of Mice and Men, Sherlock Holmes) were directed by Edward Stern, artistic director at the Playhouse. A third play (The Heidi Chronicles) was directed by Michael Evan Haney, who is Stern's associate artistic director. For a fourth offering, the world premiere of the musical Ace, the Rep functioned as an out-of-town tryout house to help get the show in shape for the Cincinnati opening. (An unintended laugh at the recent Kevin Kline Awards occurred when one of the authors of Ace, which won the Kevin for outstanding new play or musical, thanked the management at "the Repertory Theatre of Cincinnati.")
Off-Ramp's initial attraction this coming season, Altar Boyz, will move directly from the Grandel to Cincinnati, where it will open on the Playhouse mainstage, again calling into question the very need for Off-Ramp, which has yet to establish its own identity (as the Rep's studio theater has).
Anyone who thinks the Rep is not seriously considering dumping the Browning Mainstage should take a long look at the upcoming six-play season. No one can judge the quality of a production until it's seen. (I'm the first to suggest that a brilliantly staged Harvey can prove more satisfying than a badly staged Chekhov.) But it should be clear to even the most myopic theatergoer that the 2007-08 season is not going to be remembered for its boldness. Three of the six titles Kiss Me, Kate, Dracula and Tuesdays with Morrie were staged last summer at the Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, effectively turning the city's premiere professional regional theater into a summer-stock operation.
If you want to know more about the full 2007-08 Rep season, pick up one of their handsome brochures. On the front cover appear the words: Dream Big. Then on page two, next to the photo of artistic director Steven Woolf, is the slogan: Be Moved. The phrase seems prophetic. You can already hear the well-placed hints. Every time Woolf talks about "the vitality of the city," you can bet that the Rep is one step closer to packing its suitcases.
All of this leads to the real question: Will a change of locale help to revitalize the Rep, or is the root cause of its current lethargy more systemic? That question merits serious consideration before the moving vans pull up to the door.