Boulevard tells a comic tale of a company in crisis
"The Old Garde," written by Bruce Murphy, is inspired by – but not beholden to – the history and struggles of influential avant-garde company Theatre X.
Eds. Note: The more eagle-eyed among you may note that The Old Garde’s writer Bruce Murphy has been a lead editor on a number of publications here in Milwaukee, – most recently, our own. While the interview that supports this preview was conducted after the sale of TCD to Urban Milwaukee was announced and Bruce became our new editor in chief, the decision to preview this show was one we’d made long before learning this sale was moving forward. As such, we’ve decided to run this preview anyway, with great care taken to be as objective as possible despite the mitigating circumstances.
Milwaukee theatergoers who’ve been around long enough will have no trouble remembering Theatre X, the once-internationally recognized experimental theater that made its home here but indirectly impacted avant-garde productions across the nation. Those theatergoers will also remember the way Theatre X’s story ends: in a blur of accusations and arguments that split the company in two, one half of its ensemble handed a forced leave of absence and the other only managing to keep the company going a few years longer.
The Old Garde is not that story. It’s much funnier.
“This is the fairly comic version,” says Bruce Murphy, who wrote the play and will see it fully staged for the first time at the Boulevard Theatre this week. “I’m not interested in writing the tragic version.”
On the surface, the synopsis of The Old Garde as presented by director Mark Bucher seems close to the Theatre X story. The play follows the members of a small theater company ensemble, successful in their youth but experiencing midlife growing pains both professionally and personally.
But Murphy says his characters (six in total, a mix of company members, outside artists and a pushy philanthropist) don’t have one-to-one parallels with the performers in Theatre X’s real life drama. It’s an alteration that allows him freedom to focus in on the subject matter at hand without the baggage of what actually happened to the company that inspired him. It also allows him to add in subplots of his own devising, from an influential critic who has turned against the company to marital troubles among the company’s power couples.
The Old Garde originated as a rather different play – a broad spoof of the ‘80s avant-garde theater scene. But Murphy says that first draft – titled “Actors are Cattle” – was a “diffuse monster” that was more an example of how not to structure a play than anything else. “It was a play with way too many characters and not enough plot.”
Focusing in on the play’s Theatre X ties, he says, helped him bring those diffuse threads back together, and give the play a more coherent edge. And, as it turned out, it also served as a way for him to indirectly honor a company that made such a significant impact on the theatrical community it resided within.
The Old Garde will run through Dec. 1 at the Boulevard Theatre, with shows at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Performances this weekend are sold out, but tickets for next week are $23 and can be purchased online.