Delicate Magic at the Jungle Theater

New artistic director Sarah Rasmussen will stage “Anna in the Tropics” and “The Nether”

Anna in the Tropics

photo by william clark

As tends to be prudent for new artistic directors, the Jungle Theater’s Sarah Rasmussen is careful to put in the good word for her predecessor, founder Bain Boehlke, and his creation. Especially since she’s building on almost a quarter century of continuous productions in a small, almost supernaturally charged room where good work can achieve tremendous impact in intimate dimensions.

Rasmussen’s second full season at the helm opens this month with Anna in the Tropics, as she continues to push her theater forward while acknowledging that past. “We want to hold to that tradition,” she says. “While at the same time we’re also changing the faces you see.”

Anna, which will be directed by Larissa Kokernot, picked up a Pulitzer more than a decade ago and takes place in a stifling Tampa cigar factory in the 1920s Florida Cuban-American community (it’s an update of Tolstoy’s decidedly non-Cuban Anna Karenina).

Along with Kokernot and Rasmussen herself, Casey Stangl will join a slate of all-female directors in the 2017 season with this fall’s The Nether, a daring and disturbing work that weds a detective story to high technology.

“Women directed two shows in the first 26 years of the Jungle,” Rasmussen points out. “It’s just time to bring in others.”

Transitions like these always beg the question: Can the next leader retain the previous audience while building on past success? So far, indicators have been good: a rise in online ticket sales, the cultivation of a younger and more diverse audience while still reaching the base Boehlke and others built. Rasmussen cites the success in 2016 of Le Switch, a new work about the complications of gay marriage with a more contemporary feel than recent Jungle seasons, as an example of how the theater can continue to evolve.

In a sense, the mission is the same as it is for any theater—figure out how to tell stories that resonate with as many people as possible, and capture that elusive alchemy between stage and audience. My experience with the Jungle’s 2016 season was an almost startling sense of how work such as Le Switch and the reincarnation drama The Oldest Boy diverged from years past but felt like a continuation; the plays were both moving and entertaining, questing for the spirit of people in a way that I always associate with that particular theater.

Rasmussen plans to keep chasing that particular magic, while bringing in new artists. She’s open about wanting to stage more plays about people who haven’t been represented on its stage in the past—while making a case that these stories shouldn’t be pigeonholed into easy categories of diversity and inclusion.

“The question is: Can we tell universal stories with women and people of color at the very center?” Rasmussen asks. The answer, so far, is yes—and this season feels like the kind of revolutionary search for truth for which its founder was so widely recognized.

Anna in the Tropics
February 11 – March 12
Jungle Theater

The Nether
September 16 – October 15
Jungle Theater

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