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March of the Penguin: 30 Years, Barn to Off-Broadway

What's in a name? For Penguin Rep, it may have been an early indicator that the company—based in Stony Point, N.Y., some 30 miles upriver from Manhattan—was destined to be more than a community theater. Artistic director Joe Brancato didn't go with typical community-theater nomenclature like "Players" for the theater he founded in 1977; he named it the very professional-sounding Penguin Repertory Company. Brancato says he chose "Penguin" because of the animal's "formal yet friendly" image and its group-oriented behavior, a quality he wanted his troupe to have.

And now Penguin, which did evolve from community to Equity theater within its first decade, is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a production in New York City: The Goldman Project, running through Oct. 28 at the Abingdon Theatre on W. 36th St. The Goldman Project, a three-character drama by Staci Swedeen about the wartime secrets a Holocaust survivor has kept from her now-middle-aged son, was first presented at Penguin's Rockland County home a year ago and reviewed then by The New York Times as "affecting," with "emotional and moral subtlety that lingers."

Penguin Rep has been an Equity house since the early 1980s, but even before then, it didn't rely on brand-name crowd-pleasers as community theaters often do. Its first show was The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd, a vaudeville-like musical dealing with the British class system. Sure, Penguin put up a number of Neil Simon comedies in the early days, but it also culled from the off-Broadway/regional repertoire, producing works by non-mainstream playwrights like Joe Orton and Romulus Linney. Then it began focusing on new plays or plays that had received little exposure in earlier productions.

In the 1980s, the company gave a couple of its shows, Christopher Hampton's Treats and William Mastrosimone's The Understanding, brief runs in small off-Broadway houses. Eventually, NYC theaters started doing their own productions of plays that Penguin originated, often hiring Brancato to direct. The solo show My Italy Story opened at Manhattan's 47th Street Theatre in 1997, a few years after its premiere at Penguin. Other plays that originated at Penguin and were later produced off-Broadway include One Shot, One Kill; From Door to Door; The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith; Two and a Half Jews; and, most notably, Lee Blessing's Cobb, which won a 2001 Drama Desk Award for ensemble performance. Last year Brancato directed Maxwell Caulfield in off-Broadway's Tryst, which was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for best play; an earlier version, titled The Mysterious Mr. Love, had been staged at Penguin in 2000. Penguin also did Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, Warren Leight's follow-up to his Tony-winning Side Man, well over a year before the Manhattan Theatre Club produced it in New York.

While Penguin Rep has been remarkably successful for a theater established in a semi-rural area by a high school teacher and one of his students, Brancato's vision had always reached beyond a community playhouse. "I love the community, and certainly we have served the community, but my sensibility wasn't so generous that I was going to say: Of course we are all going to be involved in voting for a play this season…we are all going to be in a play this season," says Brancato, who taught English and drama at a local public school until 1988. Fran Newman, the student with whom he discovered the 19th-century barn that became Penguin's theater, is now Fran Newman-McCarthy and still involved with the company as head of audience development and treasurer of the board of trustees.

"In a sense, we are extremely a community theater by being a professional theater with Equity actors involved and all professional intentions," states Brancato. Drawing audiences from the Hudson Valley and New Jersey as well as the city, his theater has about 1,500 subscribers, some of whom have been supporting it since day one. Executive director Andrew Horn—who starred in many Penguin shows in the early '80s before giving up acting for administration—says, "We certainly are very community-minded," citing the theater's wheelchair accessibility and internship program. Four years ago Penguin began offering children's theater, importing productions by off-Broadway's Vital Theatre.

The NYC production of The Goldman Project features the same cast (Anita Keal, Sam Guncler, Bernadette Quigley) who was in it in Stony Point, again directed by Brancato. "It's great to have the three of them reunite and work on the play again, developing it forward and tweaking it," he says. "And I'm thrilled for us to showcase a playwright—a living playwright, and a woman. My hope is that it will be recognized as a great effort on her part and perhaps be produced at other theaters across the country." He also hopes this may be the start of a regular presence off-Broadway for Penguin. "It's exciting in terms of possibly doing one show a year with a company in town," Brancato says. "I have been talking to other artistic directors of companies in the city and just kind of feeling it out. There are other companies that have expressed interest because, you know, the realities of survival…"

Co-productions can ease the "uphill battle for funds" that Penguin Rep and virtually all nonprofit theaters face, according to Brancato. His company blossomed professionally even as public and private interests were retrenching on their financial support of the arts. A big blow occurred in 1988, "when Reagan had the new tax laws," Brancato recalls, almost with a shudder. "Instead of people giving you $5,000 a year, they might give you $1,000." Ideally, half a theater's funding would come from donations and grants. But today, Horn says, Penguin Rep gets as much as three-quarters of its income from ticket sales. "On the state level," he explains, "in [the last] two years, 60 percent of the funding was decreased. We get the same amount of money from the New York State Council on the Arts as we got 20-odd years ago, when our budget was much less." Penguin's theater got a facelift for its 30th anniversary, including new seats and carpeting and refurbished dressing rooms; its last major renovation took place about 20 years ago, when folding chairs were replaced with theater seats, and heating and air-conditioning were installed.

The company produces four or five shows every April-November season at its 108-seat barn theater. They usually include something fun during the summer—this year, it was the two-actors-in-a-dozen-roles Tour de Farce; last year, Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates and a new comedy of mistaken identity, Centennial Casting. Occasionally, Penguin gives its suburban theatergoers the chance to see something they may have missed in New York. In recent years, for example, Penguin has mounted productions of Stones in His Pocket, The Unexpected Man and The Pavilion not long after they ran in the city.

Brancato isn't completely averse to revisiting familiar works. Two years ago, Penguin presented the 1964 chestnut The Subject Was Roses. "I really felt that it was perfectly suited for the times, with Iraq—in terms of focusing our attention on our young men in uniform—but also it was perfectly suited to three of my company actors, Deborah Hedwall, Michael Cullen and Tom Pelphrey," he says. "[Author] Frank Gilroy got to see it and was very pleased." For this year's anniversary season, Brancato revived Lyle Kessler's Orphans, which Penguin had produced to much acclaim in 1987. "There are certain productions which not only hold a special place in my heart but in my head," Brancato says of Orphans and other early Penguin productions The Diviners and Equus (all of which featured Horn in a lead role).

Thinking back to other highlights from Penguin's history, Brancato—while noting that "when you run a theater company, you don't have time to sentimentalize often"—mentions The Wound of Love, an AIDS drama by Kathryn Grant that Penguin world-premiered in 1996. It revolved around a workaholic classical musician who shares her apartment with a flamboyant musicals-loving gay man; their lifestyles clash at first, but eventually they bond and she tends to him when he gets ill. "It was a play for its time," Brancato says, "an amazing story which ultimately tells how by service to someone else, your art and your life become richer. Things like that don't leave an audience."

Though Penguin Rep has generally found the community receptive to its sophisticated fare, Brancato also learned that some plays could be too far-out. Asked about misfires, both he and Horn immediately bring up Christopher Durang's Baby With the Bathwater, which the theater presented in the mid '80s. "The audience vehemently had a negative reaction to it," Brancato says of the black comedy, in which Durang satirizes wrongheaded parenting with his sometimes-hard-to-stomach absurdist humor. "That show, we did a lot of discussions," adds Horn. "Theater is only completed when an audience comes. So the fact that we had an audience that would stay and be vocal about it, even if it was angry or wondering why that was done, that's part of what the process is about." Brancato concludes: "Ultimately, I would rather have an evening like that in my theater—a very controversial play, or a heated discussion about a play—over something that's such a big, big fluffy-puff and they all go home and don't even say goodbye."

Just as there are things Penguin can't do, there also are things it can do that theaters in the city can't. Such as the format for its new-works reading series, Play With Your Food, which is held five times a year. Before a reading, attendees enjoy a catered meal from a local restaurant on the lawn outside the theater. After the reading, they participate in a discussion with the playwright. "It's a wonderful kind of mini-O'Neill [Theater Center] feel, or a country feel, and the pastoral setting is great for playwrights because what are you going to do, go kick a tree?" Brancato says. "When you go to a metropolitan area for feedback, what percentage are actors looking at the roles? What percentage are writers who hadn't written that and wished they had? Here, what you get are 110 people reacting honestly as audience members—no agenda—and that's invaluable to the playwright."

Some material that was first formed at Penguin Rep has made it all the way to Hollywood. The Marriage Fool, a comedy that had its world premiere at Penguin in 1993, became a 1998 TV-movie starring Carol Burnett and Walter Matthau. Finding Neverland, the 2004 Johnny Depp film nominated for seven Oscars (including Best Picture), was based on an Allan Knee play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, commissioned by Penguin Rep back in 1989 for its 50th production. The theater had no financial stake in the film rights, however. "We were a young company at that point with a lack of savvy perhaps," Brancato says. "But it's just exciting to see things like that happen. I think spiritually we were [involved in the movie]."

Penguin's Hollywood connections extend to its board of trustees, whose honorary members include Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Kelly Ripa, Mark Consuelos, Lainie Kazan, Pat Carroll and Rob Morrow. Over the years, such well-known performers as Barbara Feldon (also an honorary trustee), Robert Klein, Tovah Feldshuh, Celeste Holm, Joy Behar, Arlene Dahl and Andrew McCarthy have appeared on the Penguin stage. And it was Kevin Spacey who decided to produce a commercial run of Cobb at the Lucille Lortel Theatre after he saw Brancato's production of it at the Melting Pot Theatre Company.

This month, as The Goldman Project continues its run in Manhattan, Penguin Rep is opening 2 Pianos 4 Hands up at the barn in Stony Point. The show had a healthy run in 1997-98 at the 400-seat Promenade Theatre off-Broadway. "The company that owns the rights is very intrigued about trying it in a small theater, because it's two grand pianos, two stories of two musicians' lives," Brancato says. "In a small theater, I think it's going to be incredibly effective to be that close to musicianship and that close to the drive to succeed artistically." It also will be the first time Penguin's done a musical since The Devil's Music in 2000. (In the '90s, Elizabeth Swados created the revue We Are Not Strangers at Penguin, and the theater presented a musical called Mae West at the Club El Fey, for which Brancato wrote the book.)

Penguin's 2 Pianos 4 Hands is directed by Tom Frey, who directed the show with the same performers, Andrew Gerle and Evans Haile, last June at the Cape Playhouse. "Having this home where I can have guest artists come in and do pieces that we believe in is enormously satisfying," says Brancato. Reflecting further on his company's achievements at 30, he says: "The fact that we have a strong following, that's very exciting. Also, seeing people enjoy. Right now, there are so few places where people can commune: You don't have to go to flea markets; you have eBay. You don't have to go to a movie theater; you can rent Netflix. But whether it's a temple, a mosque, a church or a theater, it's the only place where you can gather—and I ain't goin' to the other ones, so I'm sticking with theater!" See, it all comes back to community after all.

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Photos, from top: Sam Guncler and Anita Keal in The Goldman Project; Andrea Maulella and Lou Martini Jr. in 2006's Centennial Casting; John Magaro and Michael Cullen in this season's revival of Orphans; the barn theater in Rockland County; director Joe Brancato; Matthew Mabe (left) and Eric Ware in the 1995 premiere of Cobb at Penguin. Homepage photo: Anita Keal in The Goldman Project. [Goldman photos by Kim T. Sharp; Centennial photo by Andrew Horn; Orphans photo by Kerwin McCarthy]

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