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Smart art at Society Hill Playhouse

You'd think turning 50 would mean you'd get a break. Yet just days before Deen Kogan was to receive a recent proclamation from Philadelphia city officials honoring the 50th anniversary of her Society Hill Playhouse, little was calm.

Deen Kogan, founder of the playhouse, says Greg DeCandia will learn "that 'art' sometimes doesn't pay the bills."
Deen Kogan, founder of the playhouse, says Greg DeCandia will learn "that 'art' sometimes doesn't pay the bills."Read moreLAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer

You'd think turning 50 would mean you'd get a break. Yet just days before Deen Kogan was to receive a recent proclamation from Philadelphia city officials honoring the 50th anniversary of her Society Hill Playhouse, little was calm.

The new main-stage musical The Kids Left. The Dog Died. Now What? had just opened and promised to be as successful as its predecessors Nunsense, Lafferty's Wake, and Menopause: The Musical.

But it's what was going on in the Red Room that caused a double ruckus - and not just because of the literal noise generated by BCKSEET Productions' rehearsal for Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the two-part HIV theatrical from playwright Tony Kushner that opened last weekend.

This is the first time a Philadelphia company has produced both parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, in repertory as Kushner intended. And on this rehearsal night, Greg DeCandia, company artistic director and playhouse operations manager, is swishing it up wildly in the role of Prior Walter, the play's first AIDS victim.

"It's a provocative modern classic, emotionally, intellectually, and socially," DeCandia, 31, says of Angels, which won the 1993 Pulitzer for drama. (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika won back-to-back best-play Tonys in '93 and '94, and the 2003 HBO series, directed by Mike Nichols, received a Golden Globe and an Emmy for best mini-series.)

DeCandia borrows a line from Andrew Borthwick-Leslie's director note on BCKSEET's production - "the gayness of Angels is as central and as incidental to these characters' stories as Hamlet's Danishness is to his."

This doesn't sound like the lighter-than-air fare Society Hill Playhouse has found both popular and financially rewarding over the years.

Then again, DeCandia was handpicked by Kogan in 2004 to work the box office for Menopause and soon added Red Room events coordinator to his job description. "After our first production in the Red Room - Patrick Marber's Closer - Deen offered my BCKSEET company full residence there," he says.

Of her protege, Kogan, 79, says, "Greg reminded me of many in the theater - charming and talented."

Backseat Productions originated at Emerson College in 2000, DeCandia says. "We were theater students by day and artists by night, who were instructed to focus on training, so we placed the company, like precious cargo, in the 'backseat.' "

He took BCKSEET (its license-plate spelling) on the road after graduation, from Boston to Brooklyn to Guatemala before parking at the playhouse in 2004.

Since then, BCKSEET's residency has showcased the potential versatility of the Red Room, which had been used primarily for cabarets and solo performances. It also has highlighted the company's strengths in fascinating adaptations, like 2006's Kiss of the Spider Woman (Kogan had done it on the main stage in 1987), and such musical originals as DeCandia's Hung on a Blonde Ponytail, casting director Kate Brennan's Some Assembly Required, and the officially sanctioned version of Pink Floyd's operatically rocking The Wall.

In 2008 DeCandia left the playhouse box office job but still worked as events coordinator. And soon Kogan made him operations manager as well.

"Everything seems to fall under my jurisdiction, from cleaning toilets to negotiating contracts, general maintenance to production management, fund-raising to marketing and beyond," he says with a laugh. "All this while still managing the Red Room and being producing artistic director of BCKSEET."

Now the Red Room is being used by such local companies as Theatre Exile, Quince, and Straw Flower, and as a Fringe Festival venue, even as BCKSEET executes its own smart fare, from Bogosian to Albee.

It would be easy to speculate that the Red Room represents Society Hill Playhouse's intellectual arm while the main stage has its eye on the cash register - and that Kogan's and DeCandia's roles play to that theory.

But while Kogan acknowledges that Angels is certainly an ambitious project, she also is quick to remind that she produced Kiss of the Spider Woman before BCKSEET did, and that the development of new work is important, too - like Lafferty's Wake, for example, the audience pleaser she commissioned in 2000.

"As to what BCKSEET has produced," she continues, while "some pieces were well done, some definitely [were] not my choice for programming."

But in her mind, no institution should remain static, and popular fare like The Kids Left. The Dog Died. Now What? and Menopause provides necessary revenues so the playhouse can take under its wing a young company such as BCKSEET.

Besides, no matter how much she likes DeCandia and applauds projects like Angels in America, Kogan isn't going anywhere soon.

"I'm not turning anything over to DeCandia," she says with a smile. "He loves theater, acting, and does stuff here like overseeing the booking for the Red Room that enables him to pursue his passions. He'll learn eventually that 'art' sometimes doesn't pay the bills. Please remember, final decisions regarding the theater are mine."

DeCandia is hardly looking to push Kogan out of the way. He has known since he got to Philly about Society Hill Playhouse's reputation for being the first of the city's theaters modeled on the Off-Broadway houses in Manhattan; about how it staged local premieres of Brecht, Genet, Pinter, and Durang as well as fostering the work of local aspiring playwrights; about how its Philadelphia Youth Theatre program for 25 years offered young people opportunities for positive expression and tools to hone the craft.

"The groundbreaking programming of the early years of SHP is all too often overshadowed or forgotten by the success of the 'mainstream hits' of the past two decades," he notes. "The conversion of the main-stage Green Room into the Red Room in 1986 afforded young companies abilities to present important works the playhouse prided itself on for years."

The 31-year-old certainly knows that the 79-year-old is buttering everyone's bread with those loyal main-stage audiences, and respects that. "There is something to be said about a show like Menopause, where grandmothers bring their daughters . . . to have a night out and a good laugh about a shared experience. Bringing people together is an important element of theater. These types of shows are the sitcoms of theater."

DeCandia is hopeful that Kogan will make the call and bring BCKSEET into the majors - from the desired intimacy of an overgrown black-box of 99 seats to the big game of 248.

"One of the thrills of our residency is the possibility of graduating to the main stage," he says. "Deen would be the first to say 'bring it upstairs, so long as it's financially viable.' The main room's proscenium would vastly change all our dynamics - but would be just as fun."