Playwright Ronald Weihs knows the gamble inherent in creating theatre, but that doesn't stop him from betting high stakes every time he spins the dramatic roulette wheel.
That's the case even though he's about to open the last production at Artword Theatre , the theatre at 75 Portland that he and Judith Sandiford have run since 1999. The venue - sigh - will soon be replaced by a condo.
The piece is The Gambler , inspired by the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his similarly titled novel. Dostoevsky, himself a gambler, bet that he could write a book in three weeks, risking the loss of copyright on all his works. Alexei, the story's central figure, is obsessed with roulette and a woman who vacillates in her affections. Weihs blends the stories, with the novelist dictating the fictional piece to Anna, a young stenographer.
The production, directed by Molly Thom , features David Ferry and Irene Poole .
"I have this ongoing interest in finding plays within existing works," smiles Weihs. "Though Dostoevsky never wrote a play, when I read his novels I know that he was a playwright at heart."
Alexei's cynical world deifies money. Since no ones values anything other than the financial, it's no surprise that money is exchanged in almost every scene.
"Now's not so different from the 1860s," notes Weihs. "People believe that if only they had a lot of money, everything would be fine."
Of course there's also our new awareness of gambling's addictiveness, but that's only a subtext in the play. What's more overt is another obsession, romantic love, and how it can twist a person's life.
"The book is full of knotted relationships, and because he wrote it in a rush, I don't think Dostoevsky smoothed over all the contradictions. They're part of the piece. He invented the modern existential novel, in which nightmarish figures flit in and out of the action.
"That disconnected world is contrasted with the simplicity of the relationship between Fyodor and Anna, which offers an intimate connection that has nothing to do with love or sex."
Despite the loss of the building at 75 Portland, Weihs isn't giving up on the idea of Artword Theatre, where he and Sandiford acted as generous, good-hearted hosts. You couldn't go into the space without seeing at least one of them greeting audiences.
"Artword for us means how we try to change things. It's a means, not an end. We find the world a certain way and try to make a difference, move it to the way it could be.
"And surprisingly, with the loss of the space, we're in the amazing position of having been given permission and the necessity to think for ourselves and reshape the risks that we'd like to take. It's scary and exciting at the same time, like being told to write a school essay on whatever we want."
See Opening Theatre Listings for details.
Alex's wonder land
Why isn't Alex Nussbaum a star? The tall, mildly bug-eyed stand-up comic has been working for about half a decade now, and his act is funnier than ever.
He's always been a nimble physical comic; a few years ago in these pages I called him a 3-D human cartoon. His headlining set at Yuk Yuk's Downtown over the weekend showed off that physicality, especially in a signature bit about looking directly at the audience. But his act has matured and gone to astonishing places.
Maybe it's his science education background, but Nussbaum can find the funny in seemingly incongruous things. One of his best - and most timely - jokes connects bullshitting politicians with a detail from A Clockwork Orange. Another concerns gay priests and vegans. He's stand-up comedy's great lateral thinker.
Nussbaum, the son of concentration camp survivors, has always found the humour in pain; it's what gives his comedy an edge, what makes his perma-smile so disarming.
One of his strongest jokes concerns his "daily discouragements," esteem-robbing statements he tells himself in the morning. These segue to a bravura bit about staying in bed under his goose-feather duvet.
I could go on and mention every single joke. Most stand-ups pad their act with filler. Nussbaum doesn't need to.
Most theatre discourages viewers from sharing their views during a performance, but an experiment in dialogue theatre takes the opposite tack.
"We hope, without trying to sound grandiose, to develop a creative engagement," says Liss Jeffrey , director of the Marshall McLuhan Global Research Network , which sponsors an evening called Forked Tongues And Broken Speech: Apocryphal Arts & The U.S. Culture Wars .
"Our tagline is 'There are no spectators in the dialogue theatre; come as you are.' We hope that doesn't frighten the lights out of the public."
Jeffrey quickly adds that though the idea - and the title - sounds intellectual and arty, she's struck a chord whenever she's talked about the concept with others.
"Many of us think we've entered an age in which dialogue is in decline. But that fact doesn't call for more speech or talking. It calls for action, performance - something that takes theatrical form but isn't held in a black box."
Instead, she's turning back to early ritual theatre, one that engages viewers in a different way than most performance today.
The evening's focus is a reading from American writer and painter Alice Van Buren 's Taken By Indians . Jeffrey's using it as a springboard for sharing ideas about "the failure to engage in meaningful dialogue with aboriginal peoples." The play deals with a 17th-century Puritan woman kidnapped by a native chief whom Jeffrey calls "the Osama of his age.
"When there's no dialogue, you have to resort to talking in tongues or in veiled, apocryphal ways, as Solzhenitzyn did. I think that's what's going on in the U.S. today."
The evening's structure and style are in development.
"We're planning to bring together a number of themes, and also position some metaphoric shards of glass that I hope to turn into a lens, to engage us in some of the larger questions and challenges."