Curtain Up: Variety is the Spice of Theater at South Coast Repertory

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South Coast Repertory is kicking off 2015 with a pair of plays as different as you can get.

Now playing through Jan. 25 on the Julianne Arygros Stage is “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez, whose interest in the Civil War helped shape his play.

Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson directs the production, which is set during a raging storm at what’s left of a once-majestic plantation home.

Three Jewish men prepare for Passover—the owner’s son (Caleb) and his family’s former slaves (Simon and John). Only Simon remains strong in his faith, but it is threatened by the truths about what happened in this house—and in their lives—during its antebellum days.

“The Whipping Man has a great deal to do with tradition and values, and looks at the issue of slavery in many different ways,” said Benson. “This play is a unique look at an important time in history.”

Lopez wanted to dramatize what he saw as the “the first tentative steps of the long, painful, hopeful journey” that began at the end of the war in April 1865. He started his research with a question: how did former slaves face sudden freedom? He discovered that there were 50,000 Jews in the South prior to the Civil War and some of the wealthiest families owned slaves.

The New York Times describes the play as “haunting and powerful” and it was a runaway success, earning New York’s Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards. It is one of America’s most-produced plays.

The cast for The Whipping Man includes Adam Hunter as Caleb; Charlie Robinson as Simon and Jarrod Smith as John.

Then starting Jan. 23, an epic tale of passion is served up with wit as Kneehigh’s “Tristan & Yseult” makes an exclusive stop in Orange County at South Coast Repertory’s Segerstrom Stage.

Kneehigh is an internationally acclaimed British theatre company that has thrilled audiences throughout the world. In this production a cabaret band performs above the stage as the classic myth about star-crossed lovers unfolds. King Mark is victorious in battle, and Yseult is destined to be his bride. But when he sends Tristan to bring her back, trouble begins.

This romantic epic is played out with wild abandon and stunning theatricality. It’s the timeless story of forbidden love—brought to new heights of passion.

“As the story unfolds, I realize there is not one person in the audience who doesn’t profoundly recognize something in the situation—to love someone that you shouldn’t, to betray someone you love, to be betrayed and left and, most painful—to be unloved,” said director Emma Rice.

Kneehigh seeks out imaginative ways to tell their stories, effortlessly blending comedy, drama and irresistible fun. The New York Times said: “This crossing of emotional boundaries … is the shaping force of ‘Tristan & Yseult.’ And I can’t think of another company that achieves this dynamic as vividly and unexpectedly as Kneehigh does.”

For tickets to plays at South Coast Repertory, visit scr.org or call (714) 708-5555.

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