Early last winter, Paul Baker realized a long-time dream of bringing a community theater company to Hyde Park. Inspired by his teenage daughter’s passion for theater and the neighborhood’s need for quality theater produced in a spirit of collaboration, Baker hit the streets of Hyde Park, posting yellow flyers emblazoned with an emphatic call-to-arts: “Hyde Park Needs a Community Theater. Do You Agree?” The first meeting for the Hyde Park Community Players drew a dozen Hyde Parkers in spite of what Baker calls the “stupid” choice of timing: January 20, 2009, was Inauguration Day, after all, and a moment of historic importance for many members of the community. Still, the group has retained enough members to put up its first show this week. “An Evening of One Acts,” featuring Irish playwright John M. Synge’s tragedy “Riders to the Sea” and Chekhov’s “The Bear” (a more farcical, if not equally tragic work), goes up at the Experimental Station this Friday.
Baker, who describes his role within the Community Players as “the person who is crazy enough to keep insisting that things happen,” is a modern-day Renaissance man. Insistent that he is a mere “generalist who doesn’t know what’s next,” Baker actually has multiple specialties that have come into play thanks to his recent venture into community theater. Director of “Riders to the Sea” and prop builder for “The Bear,” he also gives voice to the Players’ role as community builders and activists. For Baker, theater “feels like nothing else. It’s magical [and] an amazing way for a community to express itself.” His vision for the Hyde Park Community Players goes well beyond the productions of this week. The group is a pragmatic extension of Baker’s broader philosophy of community theater as a motor for authentic community growth. “In a world where communities don’t grow naturally–it’s strange but that’s our world–if you don’t want to live in a utopian enclave, you have to [commit yourself] to energizing the implicit community you’re in,” Baker explains. Baker’s project brings new shape to the local movement and asks us all to make a conscious commitment to the communities to which we choose to belong.
“Riders to the Sea” is among the lesser-known of Synge’s plays, but one that Baker says condenses a “powerful experience of human suffering into 30 minutes.” Set in a fishing village in the Aran Islands, the play examines the magnitude of human worth in a scenario that seems a conscious contortion of the proverbial Odyssean voyage. The profound question at the heart of the work is what happens when eight Odysseuses, each one representing the future livelihood of a family struggling to shore up its human dignity in the face of the capricious forces of nature, are lost successively to the sea. The sea itself comes to represent both the vicissitudes of family life and the inertia of the three remaining female characters, Maurya, an aging Irishwoman, and her two daughters Cathleen and Nora.
“Riders,” with its minimal demands for set and costumes (“I tell the men in ‘Riders,’ you can dress like me [in professorial khakis and a button-down shirt] and you’ll be fine!” Baker says half-jokingly), is an ideal opportunity to showcase the group’s enthusiasm on a limited budget. The same is true for “The Bear.” Corinna Hohnke, the play’s director, found a couple of broken kitchen chairs on the side of the road (to be used in the penultimate scene in which the boorish and love-stricken Grigori Stepanovich breaks his chair in an orgy of rage), which she plans to antique in a gesture of loyalty to the play’s setting in 19th-century rural Russia. For his part, Baker has allocated his spare time to carving a pair of period pistols to be used in the (in)famous battle-of-the-sexes duel.
The light cash reserves that the Hyde Park Community Players have at their disposal are not the only reminder of today’s gloomy economic climate. “The Bear” itself has a distinct recessional resonance–and that even before Corinna and the cast changed the names of Stepanovich’s debtors to Madoff, Geithner, and Bernanke. But if Stepanovitch is nearly driven to insanity by the prospect of not being able to collect on Helena Ivanovna’s outstanding debt in order to pay back his lenders, his fiscal nightmare also drives him into the arms of the very woman he thought he despised. A surface reading reveals a decidedly optimistic moral: recessions put people in the mood for love. The inaugural production of the Hyde Park Community Players is also an opportunity for locals to adopt a karmic worldview: support the arts, and good things will come to you.
Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. June 5-7; Friday-Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 2:30pm. $8. experimentalstation.org