By Eileen Morrison Darren
Eschewing the pedestrian, the maverick Outrageous Fortune theatre company undertakes its second decade as one of the borough’s most important, and unheralded, cultural resources.
Ironically, the company with the catchy classical name, taken from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech (Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, by William Shakespeare), stakes its reputation on its presentations of significant works by modern playwrights. Many of the plays come to Queens fresh from Broadway and Off-Broadway runs, sporting critical acclaim and awards ranging from the Pulitzer Prize to Tony and Drama Critics Circle Awards.
Founded in 1993 by Queens native Ronald Hellman, the company performs at the intimate 99-seat studio theatre downstairs at Queens Theatre in the Park at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, on the site of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
For 20 years beginning in the 1970s, Hellman could often be found astride the boards as an actor in local community theatre productions. But since taking the helm of his own company in 1993, he has appeared on stage in just one role for Outrageous Fortune, Gaston in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
Dressed casually in jeans and a sweater in an office with no heat on a bone-chilling day, Hellman was equally at ease discussing his family, explaining the mission of his theatre company, talking tennis, or guessing one’s height. But beneath the urbane attitude and glib repartee, the glow of Hellman’s love for the theatre shone through.
The works of major contemporary playwrights have been well represented among the Outrageous Fortune Company’s offerings over the last 10 years. They include the Tony-Award-winning “Side Man” by Warren Leight, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Martin McDonough, “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel, “Three Days of Rain” by Richard Greenberg, “The Last of the Thorntons” by Horton Foote, and “the shape of things” by Neil LaBute. For each of those title, the Outrageous Fortune production marked the play’s Queens debut.
Hellman selects plays based on readings of the texts, rather than seeing the plays performed. In this way, the works are selected based on their literary and dramatic merits, rather than the allure of stellar performances, he said.
Experienced directors are hired for whom Hellman thinks the play he has in mind is a good “fit;” he finds top-notch performers by advertising in Newsday, the Queens weeklies, and Back Stage, the theatre weekly to whose pages actors in the New York Metropolitan area turn for opportunities to display their talents and hone their craft. Outrageous Fortune auditions draw upwards of 75 actors for each production.
Hellman had dedicated the company to the memory of his late parents, Bill and Leonore Hellman, avid theatergoers who introduced him to the performing arts as a youngster. The general practice attorney, Army veteran, and graduate of Newtown High School, Columbia College, and Columbia Law School, works in Douglaston, and lives in Flushing with his wife, Lois. Hellman will, with very little encouragement, go on at length about his children, Justin and Shari, not to mention the theatre company that he considers his third “child.”
Some of the producer’s favorite productions include Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa.” Sometimes celebrities show up at performances, which is what happened at a performance of “Other People’s Money,” when playwright Jerry Sterner was in attendance.
Because the Outrageous Fortune Company makes its home in Queens, the excitement of cutting-edge live theatre is just minutes from wherever you may live in this vibrant borough. This intrepid company takes risks that most theater companies do not, and succeeds admirably in producing plays that deliver everything one expects from the performing arts, a stimulating experience that entertains, touches the emotions, tickles the intellect, and gives us insights into the human condition.
Tickets are available for the Outrageous Fortune Company’s production of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Buried Child,” which will be presented March 5 – 7 and March 12 – 14. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. on Sundays.
Call the box office at Queens Theatre in the Park: 718-760-0064, or the Outrageous Fortune Company at 718-428-2500. Senior discount and group rates are available. The theatre is located in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, near Shea Stadium and the National Tennis Center.