Hartford Stage, Long Wharf Theater collaborate on 'Irma Vep'

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Artistic directors at regional theaters usually are competitive for the hot new play, the classic revival or the star project that might get national attention or a New York transfer.

But in Connecticut, the leaders at two Tony Award-winning regional theaters in neighboring cities are not only singing each other’s praises but forming a historic alliance spurred by their personal relationships and economic needs.

Hartford Stage and Long Wharf Theater will have their first collaboration when Hartford’s production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” bows in New Haven this fall, kicking off a series of annual shuttling shows.

Charles Ludlam’s “Irma Vep,” a hit when it played in Hartford in January, again stars James Lecesne and Jeffrey Roberson (aka drag performer Varla Jean Merman). Before Long Wharf, the production will play the new Provincetown Theater on Cape Cod in mid-September. The Long Wharf run will be Nov. 10-Dec. 12.

Artistic directors Michael Wilson, from Hartford Stage, and Gordon Edelstein of Long Wharf planned to launch the alliance for the 2005-06 season. But an unexpected opening in Long Wharf’s upcoming season sked accelerated the timetable.

There is only a slight overlap of subscribers — 150 — and their own marketing studies indicate relatively few audience members travel the 45 miles to see shows at the other theater.

The details of the collaboration, which is being launched as a two-year pilot project, have yet to be worked out beyond “Irma Vep,” but there’s the intention of bringing an Edelstein work to Hartford the following season, most likely “The Crucible.”

In addition to financial gains, the partnership opens up marketing opportunities, especially with corporate sponsorships, because shows will play to a statewide audience for a longer run.

Edelstein said collaborative efforts were pushed into high gear when it became clear Long Wharf financially could not manage two larger-than-usual productions — a 12-character version of tuner “Guys and Dolls” and Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” — back-to-back. Edelstein said he was looking at a small-cast comedy substitution when he thought of Wilson’s “perfect production of ‘Irma Vep.’ “

“I get to balance my budget with a two-actor show that is largely rehearsed and with a set already built, and Hartford Stage gets a little extra income,” Edelstein said. “More importantly, my audiences get to see Michael’s work.”

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