A grown man sobs in the audience. The other 99 onlookers are nearly as shaken. Such is the effect of the first show of the Market Theater’s fall schedule, the U.S.-premiere of The Square Root of Minus One. Buoyed by a driven founder who happens to be a telecommunications mogul, the Market Theater is a force with which to be reckoned.
Since opening its doors across from the House of Blues this spring, the theater has been serving up dark, intellectual fare. Multimillionaire Gregory Carr is the aforementioned mogul behind the new theater and claims he founded it “for a little bit of a lark.” If so, it is a lark that has led to serious critical and popular acclaim.
“People have been so excited about the new theater, that it makes it seem like it is really filling a void—like this is just what Boston needs,” said Artistic Director Tom Cole, though he admits, “we were stunned by [our success].”
The story of the Market Theater’s rise is unlikely in the extreme. It begins in the mid-80s with the decision of Carr, then a student at the Kennedy School, to co-found Boston Technology, a company which sells voice mail systems to telephone conglomerates. So great was Carr’s achievements in the tech world that, at one point, he became chairman of Prodigy.
Despite his entrepreneurial genius, Carr maintains his true interests were never in business. “I’ve never thought of business as my primary activity,” he said. “I enjoyed it, and I found it challenging, but it was always something I did for fun—it’s a fairly small part of my life.”
That small part of his life has allowed Carr to realize a great many other interests, though, including the Carr Foundation and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard.
But philanthropic interests don’t traditionally lead directly to theater, and Carr admits that theater has not always been one of his chief passions. Always somewhat interested in the arts, Carr was swayed towards theater when he realized such an endeavor would combine his business skills and his yearning for new challenges. “Every new play is a complete creative enterprise from start to finish,” he said.
Carr also finds great social value in putting on shows, explaining, “We want to make people think.... We try to engage someone’s emotions, to explore what it means to be human. Any good piece of art should be able to do that.” He further believes that powerful concepts gain more power in an intimate setting, such as is featured by the Market Theater, with just between 100 and 120 seats depending on the show.
Carr was encouraged in establishing the Market by Robert Brustein, Artistic Director of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater. The two became fast friends when collaborating on a benefit performance of The Diary of Anne Frank. Brustein now serves as an artistic consultant for Carr and his theater.
At the moment, the Market is housing The Square Root of Minus One, a deeply disturbing play about sexual hazing at a 1950s boarding school. The program mentions the recent hazing scandal at Groton to underscore the play’s pertinance.
The events portrayed on stage may be hard to swallow for anyone who has not known strict, all-male, boarding school life, but the quality of the drama is extraordinarily high, and Steve Cosson, directing from a script by Peter Morris, achieves moments of intense emotion that wrench audiences in the theater and leave them with provocative images that linger. In the most shattering scene, a school boy stands stark naked on a chair with his neck in a noose, his body shaking violently with fear.
The play takes place at fictional Merion Academy, a WASPy boarding school for sons of the elite. It focuses on three blond, blazered bluebloods, seniors at the school, and their prey, Wiggins. When the boys discover that Wiggins has stolen money from other students, they blackmail, beat and bugger him in an abandoned closet in the school’s basement.
Morris centers his work, perhaps surprisingly, on one of the three aggressors, Dewis. The play’s dramatic strength comes from investigating the psychology of a boy involved in perpetrating perverse acts. He is repelled and fascinated, intrigued at the inventive evil of his friends, and ultimately uncertain where to draw the line between punishment and cruelty.
“I like the intellectual idea that runs through the play,” said Carr. “The square root of negative one is a really interesting metaphor for how we give ourselves false answers.”
Such themes fit well with the Market Theater’s mission, which involves takings risks and bringing non-traditional theater to the greater Boston area. The Market means high quality theater in our own backyard, and with special student rush tickets available an hour before the show, Harvard students should find a different kind of pre-party entertainment in the Square.
Read more in ArtsReconstructing the Past