BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Pirates, professors, a goddess, and a giant iguana are trapped together on a desert island in a mad search for buried treasure and together find musical moments to celebrate their fate. Famed Revels playwright Andy Austin strikes again!
On January 27 and 28, audiences will gather at the storied Quadrangle Club at the University of Chicago for The Trojan Iguana, featuring bestselling author Sara Paretsky, State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, preeminent Shakespeare scholar David Bevington, and a host of other world-renowned University of Chicago professors and aspiring performers. Julian Harvey, Thomas Christensen, and Kyle Greer will introduce an all-new musical score.
Tickets are available for the performances and dinner at architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s Quadrangle Club in the heart of the University of Chicago campus. Part of a century-old tradition of theatrics by students and professors, the group takes inspiration from some aspect of the University and then is off and running.
This year’s production begins with a cruise, sponsored by the University’s alumni travel bureau, with lectures by classics professors on Ulysses and other subjects. Pirates seeking ransom hijack the ship to a desert island where Bevington, as a Mafioso chieftain, escapes from protective custody and all sorts of hijinks ensue.
Andy was adding final touches to her script, ready to welcome the cast to her Hyde Park living room for its first read-through when we talked recently. Twelve years ago, longtime Hyde Park volunteer Jean Meltzer asked Andy and her late husband, Ted Cohen, University of Chicago professor and humorist, to take over the show. A former courtroom artist for NBC, Andy authored Rule 53, which featured intimate glimpses of the people she sketched, including the Chicago Seven, John Wayne Gacy, various mobsters, and others.
The cast would soon be practicing five days a week with gusto.
“We have no auditions, and anyone who would like to perform is welcome. I once sent out a letter to the cast asking if anyone would like to not have a speaking part and just be in the chorus. No one wrote back. It is like having a repertory company where everyone wants to have great lines, but we all get along very well.”
Resourceful recyclers of props and costumes, the iguana was created for a previous show, Gunk, which was set at the University’s Botany Park.
“We discovered, after Philip Matsikas (who teaches at the Lab School) created this glorious papier-mâché creature, that it was too big to get it on stage. We have now found a way to take it apart and the iguana will make it premiere appearance,” Andy reported.
This year Andy invited Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, to join the cast. Doniger is a world authority on Hinduism and mythology and author of over 40 books. Of this new muse, Andy relates, “Wendy is one of the University’s most famous and well-liked professors and has really given us a boost. Her scholarship on mythology makes her perfect for her role as a goddess, complete with a Persian lute.”
Doniger reports that she loves the lighthearted nature of the play.
“All my work has been about mythology, particularly, but not only, Hindu mythology. I am closely acquainted with a number of goddesses. My own character is really anything I care to make of it, since she is a goddess, and they come in all shapes and sizes. I think I will play her as a charlatan, rather like the Wizard of Oz—quite pompous, while still pretending to be more than she is, and then quite self-deprecating when her true identity is revealed.
“When I lived in India from 1963 through 1964, Ali Akbar Khan taught me to play the sarod—something like a sitar except that it doesn’t have frets, so all the notes slide as they do on a violin. But I haven’t played it for many years, I think I will just carry it around.”
Wendy, the niece of Leo Rubin, who wrote the lyrics for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has had a long-running interest in show business, which she brings to her part.
“He had started on the play with Charles Lederer before I was born, but I knew him when he was finishing the lyrics, and I got to meet Carol Channing, which was a great treat.”
Writing her latest book, The Ring of Truth and Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry, to be released in March, made her think of Uncle Leo, Carol Channing, and those diamonds.
“It’s about the whole history—all over the Indo-European world, from ancient India and Greece to the current cinema—of the idea that if a woman suddenly appears with a new piece of valuable jewelry, she got it by sleeping with some man. You’d be amazed how widespread that idea is—I call it the Slut Assumption. It’s in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 38, Tamar and Judah), all over Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice, All’s Well that Ends Well), films (Vertigo, The Earrings of Madame de . . .), and the basis of the de Beers advertising campaign in 1938 that persuaded everyone that it was an ancient custom to give a girl a diamond ring for her engagement. It had not been a custom at all; de Beers invented it. So the book is about the power of mythology.”
Doniger will also channel her grandmother as she sings in the Revels.
“She is really the reason why I exist. My Jewish grandmother, who sang at the Staatsoper in Vienna, was performing in New York on Krystallnacht and did not return to Berlin. I gather that she was not a good singer but had a loud voice. I inherited it. I sang a lot in my youth, particularly in college. Since then, years of asthma have pretty much knocked out my upper register, but I can still do a good imitation of Marlene Dietrich, and the composer has promised to set my one song way down in my comfort zone.”
The Revels also stars author Sara Paretsky as a professor of environmental degradation. She will once again sing a new song she has composed to the music of a favorite aria.
Trip Driscoll is currently fine-tuning his singing pirate role.
“They want a Johnny Depp pirate with some of the Tim Curry character, Frank N. Furter, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show thrown in for good measure. Exactly what that means to the character we will create through trial and error. The fun and magic of doing community theater for 15 years is a unique and joyful experience. The sense of accomplishment when the show goes up is wonderful.”
Doniger sums up the audience’s anticipation for the Revels:
“I am looking forward to a lot of ad-libbing, improvising, and general horsing around. I may even be allowed to chant my Sanskrit, which would be such a treat.”
The Trojan Iguana runs January 27 and 28 at the Quadrangle Club, 1155 East 57th Street. For tickets and more information, call 773-702-8355. Cash bar cocktails begin at 5 pm with a buffet dinner at 6 pm on Friday night, followed by the performance at 8 pm for a cost of $50. The dinner and performance is $65 on Saturday night at the same times.