by Carrie Chapter

In New London, CT, the Monte Cristo Cottage- the summer home of playwright Eugene O’Neill – provides the setting for two of his best known works, namely AH! WILDERNESS! and LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. If you visit the cottage, you can actually position yourself in the rooms as they are described in the stage directions for LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, and become enlivened by the world of the play through the inescapable world of the playwright.

Truth be told, the feeling you get with O’Neill’s cottage is much like the one evoked by his play – an eerie, sad strangeness- but my memory of it was invoked when director Jim Christy held rehearsals for Bruce Graham’s new play, THE OUTGOING TIDE, at Bruce’s vacation home on the Chesapeake – which acts as the very setting for the play. The actors could follow scene by scene on Bruce’s property with approximate accuracy to the text, which includes fishing off a shoreline, conferring at the kitchen table, and even watching the tide crash and roll in and out.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the actors perceived their “given circumstances” materializing in such detail – not to mention the pungent, wafting atmospherics of low tide. When I asked one of the actors about his experience, he replied, “It was really cold.” I do love that kind of frank, physiological response; it is pretty evident in the pictures taken on that day that the bundled actors braved a winter shore wind in the name of theatre. I did, however, have to ask playwright Bruce Graham his feelings on the site-specific rehearsal, to see what it was like to watch his characters move through his house and the world of the play at the same time. Unlike Eugene O’Neill, who cannot comment on his characters “ghosting” through his childhood home, how does a living playwright view this sort of enactment? With perfect, dependable candor, Bruce remarked,

“Actually, it was kinda creepy. I think I mostly stayed in my room while they rehearsed.”

Now, though THE OUTGOING TIDE and LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT are both family dramas, the plays are vastly different with regard to tone – the dividing line being O’Neill’s sullenness and Graham’s humor.  So, maybe, it is not the reputation of the house, but more of the act itself, which makes the “live” text intrinsically spooky. The closest I ever got to having my own on-site rehearsal was in a graveyard on a dark October night for Edgar Lee Masters’ SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY – so, yes, in my theatrical career, the pattern of creepiness continues.

THE OUTGOING TIDE at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Photo Credit: Mark Garvin. From left to right: Anthony Lawton and Richard Poe

What makes this experience even richer, though, is how it has endowed the characters with a sense of place. Their performances are now imbued with a glow of fundamental home life, with the all its hair-pulling yet tender complexities intact. That is something Bruce Graham and our audiences can take pleasure in, the joy of watching the world of THE OUTGOING TIDE ebb and flow.

The Outgoing Tide by Bruce Graham, directed by Jim Christy, sets by David Gordon, costumes by Pamela Scofield,  lighting by R. Lee Kennedy, sound design by Bart Fasbender, original music by Robert Maggio properties by Melissa Cristaldi, stage manager Amanda Robbin-Butcher, director of production Bruce Charlick, dramaturgy by Carrie Chapter, assistant stage manager Danielle Commini, technical director Michael Cristaldi. Production runs until April 22, 2012 at Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard streets, Philadelphia, PA 19102. 215.985.0420. 

WITH: Anthony Lawton (Jack), Richard Poe (Gunner), Robin Moseley (Peg)

© Carrie Chapter (23 March 2012)

Double Shot!: Two new plays from PTC@Play

By Samantha Lazar and Amy Freeman

Note: As a dramaturgy collective, we’ve tried to avoid reviewing the plays we’re working on, especially when it comes to new plays in development. You will often hear artistic directors of new play festivals ask politely audiences to not review plays that are receiving staged readings and there is wisdom in that. As Poor Lessing’s is in its first year, we’re trying to focus on projects that offer dramaturgs paying jobs and when the call went out to hire dramaturgs for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s new play festival, we wanted the event to be represented on our site because it was a program that employed area dramaturgs (more power to them!) In that spirit, these pieces are more dramaturgical musings, and not reviews. 

For a listing of all the new plays that were read at PTC (and full plot summaries), click here.

Famiglia!: Samuel D. Hunter’s WHEN YOU’RE HERE at PTC@Play

By Samantha Lazar

My PTC@Play assignment was When You’re Here, a new play by Samuel D. Hunter. The play, which is set entirely in an Olive Garden restaurant, is aptly titled, and anyone familiar with the chain’s slogan can fill in the second half: “When you’re here, you’re family.” I was tasked with reading the stage directions, and since I already had my deadpan down pat I was able to sit back and mull over all things “family” while the actors and director fine-tuned their lines in preparation for the reading.

When You’re Here is nothing if not a play about family: eight of the ten characters comprise two actual families, the restaurant’s staff weave the two together and make a clan of their own, and the play is set in a small town where everyone knows everyone. On top of that, the whole thing is infused with Olive Garden’s forced, if earnest, “famiglia” mentality. Just about all the themes and conflicts revolve around familial relationships as well. While this has certainly been done before, it never gets old.

Thinking about the popularity and prevalence of “family plays,” it seems they’ve been around just as long as the dysfunctional family has – the canon is filled with classics by playwrights ranging from Sophocles to Shakespeare, and more recently from Eugene O’Neil to Tracy Letts. Family is always in vogue. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because everyone can identify with such themes, whether they hail from the lap of luxury or a hardscrabble upbringing. Judging by the audience’s vocal responses to the reading, they identified with even the most unusual and unlikable characters in this play. That’s certainly one thing about family: even if you don’t like it or want it, it’s always there in the back of your head, for better or worse. And for that very reason, it seems like plays about family will always be there, too.

© Samantha Lazar (March 16, 2012)

WHEN YOU’RE HERE by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Kent Nicholson. Reading Friday, March 9th at Philadelphia Theatre Company. WITH: Davy Raphaely, Rachel Camp, Kevin Bergen, Amanda Schoonover, Tom McCarthy, Maureen Torsney-Weir.

Freefall: Michael Hollinger’s HOPE AND GRAVITY at PTC@Play

By: Amy Freeman

Life’s a bitch, but at least we can laugh at it. This past week, I had the opportunity to work with an excellent group of people on a reading of Michael Hollinger’s Hope and Gravity, part of the PTC@Play Festival hosted by Philadelphia Theater Company. The play, which consists of nine short plays fused together, is hilarious. But it’s also deeply moving and incredibly sad.

And that’s really the heart of comedy. You laugh and laugh, but if you aren’t crying a little inside when it’s all done, it really wasn’t a comedy. It was just funny. And we don’t need funny: it doesn’t go anywhere or make us reflect on the world around us. We need comedy. We need to laugh and in the end, realize what we’re laughing at and pause to think why we’re laughing.

A great scene that illustrates this occurs in Hope and Gravity. A woman has a meeting with her boss to discuss her health plan. Instead, her boss co-opts the meeting, attacking her for casting a white student to play Atticus Finch in a student production of To Kill A Mockingbird. In attempt to “diversify” the casting, the boss wants Atticus to be played by a black student, which doesn’t make sense. The scene is over-the-top, full of white people guilt and air quotes around terms that may not be politically correct. But it’s the scene’s end that hammers the point home. Sure, the audience was dying of laughter though the scene. Then the boss, the boss who tried so hard to paint himself as this sympathetic, super-PC character, denies the woman health coverage for her wife. It’s the knife twist that pulls it all together. Without it comedy, all comedy, would fall flat.

© Amy Freeman, March 12, 2012

HOPE AND GRAVITY by Michael Hollinger, directed by Aaron Posner. With Sarah Sanford, Peter Pryor, Jessica Bedford, Andrew Kane, and Benjamin Lloyd. March 5th, 7:00 p.m.

Immersed in RED

Philadelphia Theatre Company’ production of John Logan’s RED

by Samantha Lazar

There could not be a better space for a production of John Logan’s RED than the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts. By some stroke of happenstance the theatre seems tailor-made for the play: its walls are clad in a thick armor of undulating rust-red panels that, depending on what’s on stage, can project neutrality, sleekness, bloody panic (imagine a production of Wozzeck here), or, in this case, the feeling of being completely surrounded by – if not trapped inside – a Rothko canvas.

Inside the Suzanne Roberts Theatre

Walking into the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, taking a seat, and soaking up the surroundings is the perfect way to set the stage for what is about to unfold. The stage itself is also ideally suited for the play, with its soaring fly space providing a fitting facsimile of the former gymnasium in the Bowery that Rothko used as a studio during the years in which the play is set.

As a dramaturg with a special interest in visual dramaturgy and a sometime set designer, I always pay close attention to the entire environment of a production, whether it’s housed in an abandoned warehouse, a clearing in the woods, or, in this case, a 365-seat state-of-the-art traditional proscenium theater with 2,000 square feet of stage space. With all theatre, the pre-show surroundings are an audience’s first taste of what’s to come, and it’s exciting when the atmosphere does more than simply offer up a place to sit.

Working intensely on a show is often an all-consuming experience, and never more so than during tech week, when it can feel like the whole cast and crew is living in the world of the play. This particular work lends itself to that experience: the play is about Mark Rothko, specifically during the two years that he worked on one particular commission. Rothko’s stated intent with the canvasses of his late period, and specifically with this project, was to create a feeling that enveloped the viewer. (This might seem warm and comforting until one learns that the intended feeling is one of claustrophobia, fear, despair, and tragedy. But that’s neither here nor there.) In short, working on this production felt very much like living in Rothko’s universe, which is exactly what the famously curmudgeonly artist would have wanted.

Part of the work I did on the show included research into how Rothko wanted his paintings to be viewed, and where the commissioned Seagram Murals actually wound up after his death. After the paintings sat in storage for over a decade, Rothko negotiated a deal with London’s Tate Gallery, which accepted his conditional gift of nine canvasses. Characteristically, Rothko was exacting and particular about how the paintings were to be displayed and the donation came with the stipulation that they were to hang in their own gray-walled, dimly lit room. The goal was the creation of an imposing atmosphere that dominated the viewer’s senses and forced an uncomfortable engagement with the work.

Although Rothko never saw the installation – his suicide was discovered on the very day that the paintings arrived at the museum – the Tate’s dedicated room was the fulfillment of a dream. As the artist discloses to his assistant Ken in the two-man play,

“All my life I wanted just this, my friend: to create a place… A place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work…”

The dream was further realized the following year, when the Rothko Chapel was completed in Houston, Texas, and again in 1990 when the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Japan created a Rothko room of its own modeled on the Tate’s.

So, creating a place was essential to Rothko and if that same goal is not paramount for a production team that is staging RED, something substantial will be lost. Even without this element the play is a heady one, full of passion, intellectual ideas, pathos, and complex relationships. But this work lends itself to a visual treatment in a way that few traditional plays do. A production of RED is made all the more powerful if it can create at least a little bit of what Rothko himself hoped to attain with his paintings and the spaces he wanted them to inhabit. I think of visual dramaturgy as more concerned with the interplay of set, lights, and environment – how the technical elements make you feel, and how they work with the script – than with textual details and actors’ performances. When there is an additional, tangible element to a production that goes beyond the action on stage and forcibly inserts the audience into the experience, something thrilling is achieved. That participatory experience is what I love most about theatre.

© Samantha Lazar (October 23, 2011)

RED, by John Logan; directed by Anders Cato, set by James Noone, costumes by Alejo Vietti, lighting by Tyler Micoleau, compositions/sound design by Josh Schmidt. At Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146 (215) 985-0420. October 14 – November 13, 2011. 

FEATURING: Stephen Rowe and Haley Joel Osment