Rick Lombardo doesn’t want to say too much about what happened at San Jose Repertory Theatre, the California company he led from 2008 until it abruptly filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last summer.
Producing artistic director of Greater Boston’s New Repertory Theatre for 13 years before he debarked for San Jose, Lombardo would rather talk about what’s brought him back to town this month. He’s here to direct “Albatross,” a solo performance piece adapted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” co-written by and featuring Lombardo’s friend and frequent collaborator Benjamin Evett, and presented by the Poets’ Theatre.
“To tell story of what happened to the Rep would require me to say things I’m not willing to say,” said Lombardo, sipping a glass of red wine at the Beehive in the Boston Center for the Arts after a Saturday afternoon rehearsal. An accomplished stage director who won the Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence from the Boston Theater Critics Association for his artistic work at New Rep, including award-winning productions of “The Clean House,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Threepenny Opera” and “Quills,” Lombardo is also a successful producing director.
He shepherded the company from its days as a local fringe theater operating out of cramped quarters in the Newton Highlands Congregational Church through its move to Watertown’s Arsenal Center for the Arts, where it is now the professional theater-in-residence and a respected mid-size local company. All of which gives him insight into what led to the financial collapse of a 34-year-old theater that was considered one of the premier cultural organizations in Silicon Valley.
“The [San Jose] Rep nearly went bankrupt in 2006,” said Lombardo. The city bailed out the continually troubled company. “But it never came to grips with three challenges. One, its operational expenses were very high,” he said. “Two, it had no solid base of support.”
“The San Jose community is very dispersed,” Lombardo elaborated. “There’s no sense of a real downtown. It’s very transient and extremely diverse—43 percent of the residents speak English as a second language, and their native languages vary considerably. It’s not English and Spanish, it’s English and Spanish and Vietnamese and Korean and Chinese. There’s no sense of common culture or shared tradition; no shared idea of what live performance is. And theater is a language-based art form. How do you create a program for that?”
The third difficulty, of course, was money. San Jose is the 10th largest—and the wealthiest—city in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. “But it has no tradition of local philanthropy and funding for health and human services or the arts,” said Lombardo.
Lombardo did what he could to “turn the tide” at the regional theater. Nevertheless, he said, the organization struggled financially—though not artistically—throughout its last season. Lombardo is extremely proud of his artistic record at San Jose Rep, where he produced world premieres of plays as well as musicals, including Matthew Spangler’s “Kite Runner,” “One Night with Janis Joplin” (which went on to Broadway), the award-winning “Game On” by Tony Taccone and Dan Hoyle and “The Snow Queen,” a musical based on the same Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale as the Disney film “Frozen.”
Lombardo and Kristen Brandt, his associate artistic director, and composer Haddon Kime co-wrote “The Snow Queen,” which opened San Jose Rep’s final season and was invited to the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it became a featured selection. Mounting the musical at the Signature Center in July provided a source of solace to Lombardo, who says he was in mourning after the Rep closed in June.
“It was really fortunate that I had to go to New York and do “Snow Queen,” said Lombardo (who will stage the New England premiere of the musical this holiday season at his old home, the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown). It was fortunate, too, that his “artistic soul mate” Ben Evett, the veteran Boston actor and founding artistic director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project who’s now producing director of the recently revived Poets’ Theatre, needed a director for “Albatross” this winter.
It was Lombardo who introduced Evett to “Albatross” co-author Matthew Spangler, the San Jose playwright, director and professor of performance studies who adapted “Kite Runner” for the San Jose stage. The two got to know one another in 2012, when Evett appeared in Lombardo’s productions of “God of Carnage” and “Freud’s Last Session” at San Jose Rep.
At the time, Evett says, he was interested in developing “a solo performance piece with an overarching character and big themes—and in using digital media.” Spangler, he learned, “had always wanted to do a production based on the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.” The two worked on a script, and presented staged readings at San Jose Rep and the Arizona Theatre Company, whose board chair Mike Seiden commissioned and is now producing “Albatross.”
A contemporary adaptation of Coleridge’s 18th-century poem, the play recounts the tormented story of the Ancient Mariner, doomed for eternity to retell his tale of an old ship, a voyage to the bottom of the world and a mystical seabird. It evokes themes of the poem that Evett finds “chillingly relevant to our situation here in the 21st century”—humans’ relationship with the planet, the urgency of climate change and the “destruction of species and habitats.”
“One of the things that’s remarkable about this poem is its intense imagery—ice cliffs and death on a skeleton ship and storms and ship battles,” said Evett. He and Lombardo conjure that with digital media.
Lombardo, who’s doing the music and sound for “Albatross,” has been working with Evett and Spangler as they develop the script for the play, which he hopes will have a “life beyond this production,” he says. Meanwhile, eager to embark on the next phase of his own artistic life, he is “deep into” a job search and considering where it will take him, his wife Rachel Harker and their daughter, Claudia.
Lombardo’s experience at San Jose Rep “was a chapter I don’t regret, and I stand by every bit of the artistic work,” he said. “I’m proud of that record. It ended tragically. Now it’s time to write the next chapter.”
“Albatross” begins preview performances Friday, Feb. 13, at Paramount Center on Washington Street in Boston and opens Monday, Feb. 16.