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Ensemble Theatre premieres Ruth Bader Ginsburg play with final Notre Dame show

Ensemble Theatre has been working out of Notre Dame College for the past two years. With the closing of the school, the theater will end its run there with “The Prospect of Equality,” an original play commissioned by Ensemble, about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ensemble Theatre has staged performances in Northeast Ohio since 1979, when its original founder, Lucia Colombi, a major participant in Cleveland’s theater community, started a local company dedicated to performing the classics.

“She had a love affair with Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, all of the American classics,” said Celeste Cosentino, Colombi’s daughter and the current artistic director of Ensemble Theatre.

Cosentino took over running the company after her mother passed away in 2009, and she has been steering the ship since then. While the company traditionally focuses on classics, Ensemble also strives to shine a light on important contemporary works that speak to issues facing society.

Ensemble's New Plays Festival has featured new works that didn’t receive full mainstage treatment.

“We used to do what are called workshop productions of the new plays. So that would be like a much smaller budget. We would do shows in a small space. It would be kind of very basic level of production,” Cosentino said.

With “The Prospect of Equality,” for the first time, Ensemble commissioned a play from a local playwright on a specific topic and gave it the production resources and presentation of a full mainstage production. The idea for the commission came after the success of the 2015 one-man-show, “Thurgood,” by George Stevens Jr. about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. That Ensemble production inspired Cosentino to seek out a local playwright to tell Ginsburg’s story.

Rachel Zake, a writer, actor and president of the board of directors of Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, was tapped for the commission.

“I've been acting professionally since I was 14. I've been directing for almost a decade and writing for almost a decade and a half. So, really strong background in theater that started with acting in Cleveland, actually. So, it's nice to be back here and writing,” said Zake.

two women stand in front of a large bunch of chairs
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Celeste Cosentino (left) and Rachel Zake (right) are the director and writer, respectively, of "The Prospect of Equality."

Zake spent time in Los Angeles, appearing in TV shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” before moving back to Cleveland. With the commission from Ensemble Theatre, Zake sought to bring Ginsburg’s personal life center stage.

“I researched and found there were a number of plays about her professional successes in addition to the movie that was created. But I wanted to focus on her personal life and how that helped her move along,” Zake said.

The play follows the life of Ginsburg from her time in college through her career as a Supreme Court justice. The first part of the play features younger Ginsburg, played by Erin Moran, being guided by a spiritual representation of her older self, played by Laura Perrotta. When Ginsburg reaches an older age the actors essentially switch roles, with the younger Ginsburg becoming the spiritual advisor to her older self.

two women on a stage, one walking away
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Erin Moran (left) plays a younger Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the play, and Laura Perrotta (right) plays the older version. The two versions of Ginsburg interact throughout the play.

The play was workshopped and received multiple readings before the final version was completed.

“Some of them have been with us since the first reading,” said Zake, referring to the cast. "Having a group where there's no drama off stage makes it really possible to create beautiful drama on stage. And I think that's what we have here.”

Cosentino said while this is the last Ensemble Theatre performance at Notre Dame, they are looking for a new place to call home and will spend the next season traveling to different theaters as an itinerant company. Regardless of where they land, this will not be their last original production.

woman stands on stage in a red shawl
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Laura Perrotta plays Ginsburg in the second half of her life.

“I think this will be definitely the first of many commissions,” said Cosentino. “The idea being too, also cultivating local talent, not just actors, but writers, directors, you know, designers, all that kind of stuff.”

“The Prospect of Equality” runs Friday through June 9.

Ygal Kaufman is a multiple media journalist with Ideastream Public Media.