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‘Arms on Fire’ Tony Award-winning team pens world premiere for Chester Theatre

  • James Barry, left, as Smith, rehearses with Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    James Barry, left, as Smith, rehearses with Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Guiesseppe Jones, right, as Ulysses, rehearses with James Barry, as Smith, for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Guiesseppe Jones, right, as Ulysses, rehearses with James Barry, as Smith, for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • James Barry, left, as Smith, and Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, rehearse a scene for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    James Barry, left, as Smith, and Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, rehearse a scene for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens, right, directs James Barry, left, as Smith, and Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, in a rehearsal for "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens, right, directs James Barry, left, as Smith, and Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, in a rehearsal for "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens directs a rehearsal for "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens directs a rehearsal for "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • James Barry, left, as Smith, rehearses with Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Guiesseppe Jones, right, as Ulysses, rehearses with James Barry, as Smith, for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • James Barry, left, as Smith, and Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, rehearse a scene for the Chester Theatre Company production of "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens, right, directs James Barry, left, as Smith, and Guiesseppe Jones, as Ulysses, in a rehearsal for "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens directs a rehearsal for "Arms on Fire" by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. The first production of the 2013 season is being rehearsed in the Chester Railroad Museum while the Chester Town Hall undergoes the annual change into the performance space for the company.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

Chester Theatre Company is no stranger to success: 17 original plays produced by the professional company have been picked up by other venues since it opened 15 years ago as the Miniature Theatre of Chester. Some, “The Bully Pulpit” in 2007 and “The Dishwashers” in 2008, for example, have gone on to performances in New York City, while others, “Nixon’s Nixon” in 1999 and “Tea for Three” in 2004, have gone on tour. CTC’s artistic director Byam Stevens says the theater group will present another world premiere this year that he hopes will follow in their footsteps.

“Arms on Fire,” the company’s season opener, was written by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, the creators of the Broadway hit “Spring Awakening,” which earned them eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical.

“We’re really excited to be doing the world premiere of a piece by a couple of guys who have a Tony Award on their shelf,” Stevens said in an interview at a recent rehearsal in Chester.

Stevens says the play is about finding truth, even if that truth is uncomfortable.

Ulysses (Guiesseppe Jones) is a factory worker who is in a sort of self-imposed exile. He moved to New York City to get away from his past. There, he meets a singer named Smith (James Barry), who draws out Ulysses’ past, highlighting memories of his lost love Josephina (Natalie Mendoza). When she arrives, both characters have to face truths about the present.

Stevens says Sheik and Sater’s reputation has pulled in strong actors to fill the roles.

Mendoza, for example, who lives in Los Angeles, played Arachne in “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway in 2011. Jones is a New York City actor who trained at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Barry is coming off six months on the road playing Carl Perkins in the musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” He also appeared in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” in 2010 on Broadway.

Barry has acted with Stevens before: In August 2011, Barry played Professor Faustus, in Stevens’ production of “Wittenberg” at the Chester Theatre. His efforts earned him an award for best performance of the year from The Berkshire Eagle.

“James is very adventuresome. He takes big risks and he’s a pleasure to work with,” Stevens said.

Plus, he can sing, Stevens added, which is a must for his character in “Arms on Fire.” The play features 11 songs, a number much higher than any production the theater group has done before. Stevens says adding the musical component is challenging and exciting for the company, and for him, personally, as the show’s director.

He’s employed a music director, and a four-person band to accompany actors onstage, although, he says, “Arms on Fire” isn’t a musical, but, rather, a play with music.

“It’s providing emotional subtext to what we’re seeing,” Stevens said, “serving a different function. It’s a new exploration of how to integrate music into theater.”

Developing new work

Stevens directs one play in Chester almost every year. Many of those have been world premieres.

The concept of developing new work is something he says goes back to his roots in New York City, where he lived in the 1970s and ’80s. He began his career in the theater as an actor, but says he slowly became more interested in writing plays.

He shifted to directing in his early 20s, becoming a literary manager and a director at The Writer’s Theater in New York. It was there that he became familiar with Sater’s work; the playwright submitted early versions of “Arms on Fire” to the theater, which Stevens liked, and they began to develop readings and workshops. That led to an ongoing professional relationship between the two: Stevens directed Sater’s first Big Apple production, “Carbondale Dreams,” in the late ’90s at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City.

Stevens settled in Chester and became the theater’s artistic director in 1998. The first play he chose to do there was another of Sater’s: “Plains of Ilion.”

The collaboration on “Arms on Fire” has been in the works for a while, Stevens says. The script was first workshopped as a play at the Atlanta Theater Company in the ’90s. Sheik attended the workshop, liked what he read, and began collaborating with Sater on music for the piece. Steven’s says most of that music was released as an album, “Phantom Moon,” in 2001.

“It’s great for me to reconnect with somebody who I’ve worked with a number of times, who’s in fact worked for this theater before,” Stevens said.

“Arms on Fire,” which opened earlier this week, will be onstage through July 7 at the Chester Town Hall. For ticket information, call 800-595-4849 of visit www.chestertheatre.org.

Related

Also coming up at Chester Theatre Co.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Chester Theatre Company’s summer productions continue with three more plays. ∎ July 11-21: “Tryst,” a play that premiered Off-Broadway in New York City in 2006, starring Maxwell Caulfield and Amelia Campbell. Written by Karoline Leach and directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer, “Tryst” is set in London in the first decade of the 20th century. A con man, going by the … 0

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