New theater, permanent ensemble

As the Sydney Theater Co. ramped up for the Jan. 10 launch of its long-awaited new Sydney Theater with a world-premiere double bill, it seems everything that could go wrong did.

An electrical fire broke out in the green room; separate floods hit the stage, orchestra pit and foyer; and three previews were canceled to allow time to deconstruct, dry out and rebuild the stage.

Jonathan Biggins, director of the musical half of the double bill, came down with chicken pox during rehearsals, and scenes in the drama were still being reworked on the eve of its final preview. Biggins says the mood in the company was “a little like a hot air balloon.”

The number of hiccups is proportional to the ambitious scale of what STC artistic director Robyn Nevin set out to achieve.

In fact, when she conceived her plan for launching the new venue and celebrating STC’s 25th anni, “I nursed it to myself for a couple of months,” she recalls. Then, once she’d figured out how it would play, she began pulling the pieces together.

Nevin has always been upfront about her desire to have a permanent ensemble at the STC, a subsidized company. Unable to afford one, however, she decided to make a theatrical splash by using one troupe of eight players in both works.

She commissioned “Harbor” from Aussie scribe Katherine Thomson (“Navigating”). The family saga is set against the backdrop of the 1998 waterfront dispute, which saw a stevedoring company employ illegal means to break union power on its wharves.

By delicious design, “Harbor” plays out along streets and wharves adjacent to the Sydney Theater, which is housed in a former cargo storehouse across the street from STC’s Wharf Theater and headquarters.

Nevin then commissioned “The Republic of Myopia,” a musical farce set in a make-believe land at the turn of the century, from helmer Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott (music).

“It was quite a risk offering a new Australian musical to guys who’d never written a musical before,” Nevin admits. “They’ve done a lot of small cabaret, but this was the big time, and I decided to take the leap with them.”

“Myopia” is the first musical Nevin has programmed since she took over the STC five years ago. Now that the company has a space in which to stage tuners, she intends to program one every other year.

The Sydney Theater also is being booked by independent producers, a first for the STC, whose two other small auditoria are used exclusively by the company.

On opening day, the shows were scheduled for 2 p.m. (“Harbor”) and 8 p.m. (“Myopia”), with the site’s Hickson Road Bistro facing a world premiere of its own in between.

With smoke from bushfires on Sydney’s fringe permeating the hot Saturday afternoon, Nevin greeted guests including state premier Bob Carr, scribe Tom Stoppard, ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the cream of Aussie theater.

The ground floor of the new 850-seat theater houses the box office, bar, bookshop and the bistro.

The theater’s stunning interiors combine the building’s original brickwork with glass, steel and wooden palings salvaged from nearby wharves. The auditorium is comfortable but not plush, and the 39-foot-by-40-foot stage is deep and boasts generous wings.

Despite the liberal proportions, however, Biggins says opening night was rather cramped in the wings: “We have two sets in one space and (just) 2½ hours turnaround” between shows.

Though neither set was particularly noteworthy, both showed off the facility to good effect. “Myopia” employs myriad hydraulic set changes, while “Harbor’s” simple set of two staircases and a suspended double-span bridge is designed to mirror the neighboring docks.

By opening night, the ensemble had swollen to 10 and vet Peter Carroll was onstage in nearly every scene in both plays, a combined running time of 4 hours and 20 minutes.

In “Harbor” he portrayed the wharfie father who returns to his family, seeking forgiveness for absconding with another woman and his severance pay three years earlier. In “Myopia” he played both a usurped president and the look-alike actor brought in to replace him, a puppet to evil forces.

It’s testament to his skill and experience that he fumbled his lines only once, during a father-son scene in act one of “Harbor.”

“Harbor” is a compelling story with an undercooked script. Too often the actors were forced to directly address the audience to keep viewers up to date.

“Myopia,” though well-directed, was conceived by a cabaret team and looked and sounded like it. All 10 players came together for only one number; the rest of the score was dominated by thin-sounding duets that failed to fill the space.

Those flaws aside, the double bill succeeded in fulfilling Nevin’s ambition of showcasing the players and the theater — but the rest of the company didn’t come off looking as good.

When Carr declared the A$42 million ($33 million) theater open at the end of the night, he also announced that Nevin’s dream of a permanent ensemble would be realized through a $2 million government grant. Through a wall of streamers and fireworks, her delight was palpable to all in the audience.

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