Not one, but two shows new to Sarasota audiences are coming to Asolo Rep, both of them with local connections.
The first, Eureka Day, is a comedy by New College of Florida graduate Jonathan Spector that received rave reviews for earlier productions in New York and California. (The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called it “the perfect play for our age of disagreement.”) It’s centered on the uproar caused at a progressive school for young children when an outbreak of mumps begins and some parents declare their opposition to vaccinations.
Sound familiar? Eureka Day was written in 2016, long before the raging fights over Covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. Playwright Spector says the inspiration came before he had a child of his own to worry about.
“I had conversations with friends, whom I figured were like-minded about vaccines,” he says. “But then you discover they are skeptical of them.”
In Spector’s case, the parents he knew who were opposed to vaccines fell on the liberal side—not the conservative voices now weighing in against vaccination. Spector is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the work was commissioned for a theater in Berkeley. He says he “wanted it to feel like a very Berkeley play. The question was, ‘Would it work elsewhere?’”
Spector studied literature and theater at New College in the late 1990s and also taught in Sarasota briefly. He returned to the college for an alumni reunion in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. He plans to travel to Sarasota for the opening of the Asolo Rep production, which runs May 13-June 4.
Asolo Rep’s producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards saw Eureka Day during its off-Broadway premiere in 2019. He had heard good things about it, but didn’t realize then that Spector had local ties. Edwards says he “thought the play was great, and very funny, but that the vaccine issue was fairly remote. Of course, now we’re all living in it and it’s incredibly timely.”
Spector continues to work on certain scenes of the play, especially one in which audiences responded with so much laughter to a livestream of a school board meeting that they couldn’t hear the lines the actors were speaking. (Not a terrible problem for a comedy to have.) Spector says his hope is that Eureka Day challenges people’s ideas about personal freedom and social responsibility, but he stresses that the play is “not about Covid.” You be the judge.
Another play coming up, Hood, was originally scheduled to run at Asolo Rep before the pandemic shut down the theater’s 2020 season. Now onstage from June 11 to 26, it’s a new musical version of the classic tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Band, complete with a Maid Marian who is definitely not a damsel in distress. With a book by Douglas Carter Beane (Cinderella, Xanadu) and music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn (Lysistrata Jones), Hood also has a producer with a home on Longboat Key: Tom Kirdahy, the producer of, among other hits, Hadestown.
Kirdahy first saw a production of Hood a few years ago at the Dallas Theater Center. “I thought it was really wonderful,” he says. “Yes, the story is familiar, but this production tells it in a new way. Our cast is so diverse. Both Robin and Marian are Black, the entire company is representative of all walks of life, including queer and nonbinary. There’s just a gorgeous diversity.”
The show’s choreographer, Ellenore Scott, recently choreographed an off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors, another Kirdahy production, and will do the same for the upcoming revival of Funny Girl on Broadway. Kirdahy calls this production of Hood a “step on the journey” toward a possible Broadway appearance.
The show will likely evolve during the Sarasota performances based on the reaction of what Kirdahy calls the city’s “sophisticated” audience. Kirdahy quotes a saying of his late husband, playwright Terrence McNally: “The audience is the final character.”
The story of Robin Hood has been told since the 1400s, but remains ever-relevant. “This contemporary telling of a classic story felt great for our times,” says Kirdahy. “It has a lot to do with justice and the importance of fairness, about unity and community. But it’s also fun, filled with life. Marian is a badass. She’s a better archer than Robin.”
For more info and tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.