Tuesday, October 26, 1999

In massive 'Grapes,' drama in the details

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was written as a 20th-century epic. The Depression-era novel followed the desperate journey of the Joads, who lose their Oklahoma tenant farm to drought and dust and head west to the promised land of California.

        In California, promises go unkept. What the family finds are injustice, hunger, disillusionment and tragedy.

        “It's the story we all think we came from,” says Michael Burnham. “We all have this American myth built into us.”

        Mr. Burnham is directing Grapes of Wrath, the largest production in the history of the College-Conservatory of Music drama department, Thursday through Sunday at the University of Cincinnati. It features all 30 students, sophomores through seniors, in the program.

        Grapes the play is as mammoth an undertaking as the Pulitzer Prize -winning novel. Adapted for the stage by Frank Galati for Chicago's Steppenwolf, the production quickly earned legend status when it debuted more than a decade ago.

        A CCM Grapes had been in the talk stage for more than a year. One big question in deciding the 1999-2000 titles was how the department could follow last season's triumphant Angels in America and open the new CCM complex.

        Then it was time to talk to the designers. The costume department was committed to a gala opening celebration in December and the musical theater department's The Secret Garden.

        “We asked how many costumes we could have,” Mr. Burnham says. When the answer was 30 to 35, Mr. Burnham and drama department chair Richard Hess huddled. Thirty costumes, 30 students. “It took us a while to be brave enough to go ahead,” with the inspiration, laughs Mr. Burnham, but go ahead they did.

        The set design was started before the last academic year ended. The stage deck was completed by the end of summer. @subhead:Plays within play @body:

        Grapes has been in rehearsal since mid-September, a week before the academic year began.

        The trick to directing an epic, says Mr. Burnham, “is to find all the little plays inside it.”

        So on a recent week night, the ensemble was gathered — as they are gathered five days a week — in a rehearsal room. Mr. Burnham, in his uniform of blue jeans and denim shirt, prowls the room, crouches in concentration, finds those many little plays.

        “The cast plays a thousand nameless roles (characters the Joads encounter along the way) and each actor has to be able to answer the question "who am I?' for each one of them.”

        Grapes is about myriad human dramas. “It wasn't only the Joads out there,” points out Mr. Burnham. “There were 350,000 people out there.”

        For the first weeks of rehearsal, the company worked on a tight timetable. Long before the students returned to campus, Mr. Burnham had worked out a schedule for blocking out scenes.

        One recent Sunday scene work was timed to the minute: 1 p.m. to 1:17 p.m.; 1:17 pm. to 1:51 p.m.; 1:51 to 2:25 p.m.; 10 scenes in 38 pages to be fleshed out by 5 p.m.

        Now Mr. Burnham is in the process of “listening to it like music. It's not enough to find the overall sweep. We have to find the moments. If people aren't looking at their friends as they leave and saying, "remember that moment when she turned around and touched his face' — then we haven't done it.”

        • What: The Grapes of Wrath

        • When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

        • Where: Patricia Corbett Theater, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati

        • Tickets: $22. 556-4183.


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