“Jack’s Back!” is about nineteenth century murderer Jack the Ripper. Directed by John Gould Rubin, “Jack” is a madcap look at one man, sausage stuffer Herbert Wingate, who might be able to put a stop to the bloodbath.
If it sounds like an atypical thriller, it should. One of the key elements that drew Rubin to the show, which has a score by Tom Herman and a book by Elmer L. Kline, Lee Cardini and Herman, was its compelling mix of styles. “It’s written like a traditional musical, but it reinforces the oddly funny and the scary,” he says of the show, the first he has directed for the company. “There are elements of German expressionism, of Grand Guignol, it’s a lot like [Stephen Sondheim’s] ‘Assassins.’ It’s light-hearted but gruesome.”
In talking to several members of the show’s company, which includes 16 actors, a pianist and a keyboard player, it becomes clear that “Jack” presents multiple challenges for its director, cast and crew, not the least of which includes staging a show written for a traditional proscenium for the Gloria Maddox black box format. But these obstacles all seem to part of the allure of the “Jack” experience.
“Part of what’s appealing is that it’s ‘théâtre de complicité’,” describes Rubin, whose musical directorial experience includes last year’s “The Fartiste,” a New York International Fringe Festival winner, of “Jack’s” T. Schreiber design. “The performers themselves are ‘items,’ or ‘proppage.’ Is that a word?” he asks with a laugh.
Finding the right tone was another matter for the show. In keeping with its themes of murder and mayhem, “Jack” bounds back and forth between a heightened world and a very realistic one. Striking the right note proved to be the main challenge for everyone involved. “One line can be ridiculous, and then the next draws you back to reality,” explains Arley Tapirian, who plays Martha Wingate.
Casey Shane, who plays Herbert Wingate, concurs. “We’re working on finding the pace, but it’s like a light switch,” he says. “The levity keeps flipping to a moment that’s natural. The music helps with that, though. Everyone’s up for the challenge. We go from being a farcical romp to being unbelievable real – that’s when I get my substitution in.”
Shane’s use of the word “substitution” – the technique of an actor using a personal experience to justify a character’s motivation – is a perfect reminder that T. Schreiber Studio doesn’t only mount top-caliber productions. Its mission is also to educate actors through rigorous training and practical experience. (The studio was awarded the 2011 Outstanding Production New York Innovative Theatre Award for its revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” and has been named Favorite Off-Off Broadway Theatre by the Back Stage Readers' Choice for the past two seasons.) Because of this goal, performers in productions are past students or current students who have studied a minimum of three months with the studio. Tapirian graduated from the program a decade ago, while Shane began studying with T. Schreiber eight months ago.
The actor also has another connection to the studio: his parents studied with T. Schreiber in the past, and he knows Terry Schreiber’s daughter socially. Schreiber himself encouraged Shane to audition for “Jack.” “He harped on me to go in and do it,” Shane remembers. The studio also encouraged many actors with non-traditional musical abilities to audition, thus giving less-experienced performers an opportunity to enhance their singing and dancing acumen.
“And I’m glad he made me do it,” Shane says. “Doing the show has been challenging but it’s been really great.”
Sounds like a case of murder most fair.
More information on “Jack’s Back!” can be found at http://tschreiber.org/productions/now-playing/.