In the wake of the financial collapse of 2008, it’s a familiar story in Louisville and beyond – a corporation announces plummeting profits and staff layoffs, prompting a company-wide rash of panic, paranoia and self-preservation. But playwright Patricia Milton finds the biting humor in those tales of individual desperation and corporate self-interest in her workplace comedy “Reduction in Force.”
Directed by Scot Atkinson and Beth Tantanella, The Bard’s Town Theatre’s Louisville premiere of “Reduction in Force” opens Thursday and runs through August 4 in the theater upstairs from the restaurant. It’s part of an ambitious expanded season for the pub theater, which celebrates its third anniversary this month.
“Reduction in Force” was commissioned by Central Works Theatre in Berkeley, Calif., where it made its world premiere in 2011, winning “Best Local Play” from the Broadway World San Francisco Theatre Awards.
It’s “The Office” by way of the ancient comedies, says Amy Steiger, a member of The Bard’s Town Theatre ensemble who had been slated to direct the show, but stepped into one of the play’s three roles when another actor dropped out of the cast.
“There’s a character in a position of power, and then there are people who are smarter than that leader who are not powerful. There’s that kind of convention throughout Greek and Roman comedy,” says Steiger, an assistant professor in the University of Louisville’s department of theater arts.
In this fast-paced farce, Icarus Financial Services has hit troubled water. There’s talk of regulators opening criminal investigations, and inside information on hurricane futures aren’t as forthcoming as Gabby (Natalie Fields), an amoral finance shark, would like.
When she hears she has to cut jobs (the euphemistically titled “reduction in force”), Gabby pits ambitious young runner Mitch (Ben Gierhart) against long-suffering secretary Anita (Steiger) in a vicious competition for her favor. Mitch and Anita have to decide if they’re going to look out for themselves and play the game, or team up and take on the system.
Class warfare is played for laughs in the script, but Steiger says many of the play’s farcical details are actually based on real financial sector situations and events, like the moat surrounding the corporation’s headquarters that’s modeled on a similar feature outside the JP Morgan Chase building in Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s a really funny satire. There’s a lot of physical comedy in it, and it’s a very timely play,” says Steiger. “I’m really interested in things that draw attention to the economic system.”
Steiger, a Louisville native, completed her PhD studies at the University of Texas, where she focused on performance as public practice. She walks the line between theory and practice in her work in class and on stage, combining research with socially-engaged theatrical performance. And when she returned to Louisville in 2007, she noticed a surge in new small companies, like The Bard’s Town Theatre ensemble, who were producing engaging stage work.
“A lot of the work I do is advocating for arts-based research methods and practice-based scholarship, advocating for seeing performance as a form of research,” says Steiger.
In addition to her teaching and directing work on campus (her students devised the sports community piece “Plays: a Play” last year), working with The Bard’s Town ensemble has afforded Steiger the opportunity to work on plays that are relevant to the community and to the artists who produce the work. In the future, she wants to create community-based collaborative theatrical projects based on Louisville neighborhoods.
“What it’s offered me as an artist is the opportunity to work on things that are exciting and relevant to the local community that aren’t limited so much by commercial concerns,” she says. “The plays [we produce] are based on the people you’re working with, and the audience to whom you’re speaking.”