Generic Theater wants to put audiences through Hell.
Friday October 20 through Sunday November 12 the Little Hall performance space “down under Chrysler Hall” will be turned into a Dantesque vision of the underworld as audiences get to see Hell through the eyes of infamous white collar fraudster Bernie Madoff.
Pulitzer and Tony Award nominated playwright Lee Blessing (A Walk in the Woods) wrote A User’s Guide to Hell, featuring Bernard Madoff which premiered off-Broadway in 2013, and Generic Theater will be presenting its regional premiere under the direction of Ryan Quinn McIntire who helmed last season’s production of The Whale.
“The title in and of itself is something that just makes you want to see it,” said McIntire when asked what initially attracted his attention to the project. “The idea that you get to watch Bernard Madoff get punished. The Schadenfreude of that draws me to it, and the fact that it’s called User’s Guide reminds me of Beetlejuice. There’s enough just in the title.”
Generic Theater has seen some interesting titles grace the cover of their playbills. Two years ago there was the world premiere of The (former) Prostitutes Potluck Supper, and last season some extra dashes were needed for the Scope/Chrysler Hall marquee to tout their production of The Motherfucker with the Hat. But not since Generic Theater presented a series of popular singer career retrospective pieces has the name of a “celebrity” been included in the title.
“Bernie has two different monologues where we really do get a look at why he felt that it was okay to do this [financial fraud] and what it was he was trying to do,” McIntire says of the central character in the play, based on the real life Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme through his investment firm, swindling an estimated $64.8 billion from his 4,800 clients. “I was surprised at how the script on those two occasions almost makes you feel sorry for Madoff, almost lets you understand why he had no choice, and then [the character] Madoff himself bashes that sympathy’s head against a rock. That sense of hubris is very telling to who the real Madoff is as a person and why he did what he did.”
Madoff is being portrayed by local actor Steve Suskin, making his first appearance in a Generic Theater production after recently playing Peter in Jesus Christ Superstar at The Little Theatre of Norfolk. His guide through Hell is a mysterious and colorful character named Verge, played by Miguel Girona, who stole scenes as Cousin Julio in last season’s The Motherfucker with the Hat.
“It’s a very specific hell that gets tailored a little bit to Bernie,” McIntire says of the play’s titular setting. “I think it will be a fun surprise for the audience to find out what kind of hell is the hell of Bernie Madoff.”
McIntire felt that the biggest challenge in staging this production was dealing with a sensitive subject that might make some audience members uncomfortable. “There’s a major American event that this play deals with that is very hard to present comedically,” he explains. “I think as uncomfortable as the audience might feel, they will be rolling their eyes and laughing through it as well. It’s a comedy. It’s tough, but I think we’re pulling it off.”
This comedy set in the underworld also includes a large ensemble that populates Hell with interesting characters (some real, some fictional) that entertain the audience in many different ways. “This is something where I can have fun,” McIntire says of the different elements of the production. “I can make this a show in every sense of the word, and that’s what it’s really become. It’s a little bit Vegas, a little bit live studio audience, it’s interactive, I have characters going out into the audience. It’s not really an installation piece, but the audience is aware that they are audience members and the show is aware that they’re there, even if the characters aren’t.”
“It points towards spectacle, the grandiose,” McIntire explains about the direction of the show. “The darkness is in the dialogue. The actions the characters have taken to land in Hell is presented in a way that’s easier for the audience to swallow. The audience is observing Hell more than actually experiencing it. The only reason the audience might experience Hell is we haven’t gotten new chairs yet.”
Generic Theater audiences are familiar with the uncomfortable chairs of which he speaks. Their recent production of Assassins included a special mezzanine section dubbed the “Lincoln Booth” where patrons could sit in more comfortable chairs for a small donation in an effort to raise funds for new seating. For this production there is a fundraiser that gives patrons the opportunity to have a small walk-on role during a peak moment in the show. If you’ve ever wanted to be a player in a Generic Theater production but never wanted to hassle with auditions or rehearsals, you can email artisticteam@generictheater.
McIntire is optimistic that this show will not only be a Hell of a good time for the audience, but also has the potential to say something about humanity. “I think what I see as the message of the play is a pretty powerful one,” he adds. “I think it has the potential to be a really fun show that deals with the greatest financial scandal in American history and a true American white collar villain. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable and it’s very adult and it’s very dirty, but this a fun event that people can enjoy, and whatever message they want to take away from it they can.”
Generic Theater presents A User’s Guide to Hell, featuring Bernard Madoff by Lee Blessing through special arrangement with Dramatists Play Services, Inc. Performances take place in downtown Norfolk at Little Hall down under Chrysler Hall on October 20 through November 12. The show contains some strobe light effects, and adult themes and language. Get more info, prices, and purchase tickets here or by calling 757-441-2160.