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It’s Moldy and Sweaty, and It’s Just Like Home

The cast of 'The Opponent'

The cast of ‘The Opponent’

Why Brett Neveu’s boxing drama is actually a family play

There is nothing particularly warm, welcoming, or homey about the setting of Brett Neveu’s The Opponent, a two-character play about a young boxer sparring with an older trainer in backwater Louisiana’s Rock and Anvil Boxing Gym. The paint is peeling. The equipment is old. You can almost smell the mold and sweat.

Still, Chicago playwright Neveu drew on the feelings of family and home—including the safety of his artistic home—when crafting his gritty drama, which premiered to critical acclaim at Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre in 2012. (It’s now back for round two, with its cast and creative team intact, in its New York premiere at 59E59.)

“I pulled from my own memories of watching Friday Night Fights with my dad back when I was a kid,” Neveu says. Interviews with trainers, boxers, and gym owners also informed the piece, but from the beginning he knew his primary goal was dramatizing a “father-son thing.”

In the show, Donell Fuseles (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a 20-year-old fighter with stars in his eyes, spars with washed-up boxer Tre Billiford (Guy Van Swearingen), a trainer eager to teach his students what not to do. The life lessons and fancy footwork come to a head following a fortune-changing bout.

“I don’t think I have a play that isn’t, in some way, about the family dynamic,” the playwright says. “That probably grows from my linking theatre to family and vice versa. It’s also something we can all relate to, the mixed passions and emotional baggage of family. Most of my plays are about what happens when violence pushes its way into the situation, and how power dynamics and protectiveness smack into what the characters want from each other.”

And what do The Opponent‘s characters want? Nothing less than respect, acceptance, forgiveness, and emotional or financial support—all that family stuff. Neveu paints his conversations in subtext-heavy gray, asking the audience to draw conclusions about the quality and motives of Tre’s lessons and the wisdom of Donell’s criticism of his father-figure’s past failure.

“My goal is to keep the audience guessing who to root for, just like they might do with family,” Neveu says. “That gray area is what draws me to subject matter and is what keeps me moving the writing forward.” [Read more →]

July 30, 2014   No Comments

The Tiniest Details Change the “Sex”

Anna Gunn & Billy Magnussen

Anna Gunn & Billy Magnussen

The evolution of Laura Eason’s latest play

Almost every play begins with a rush of inspiration, and ideally, that energy remains palpable for the rest of its life. Once it’s time to actually stage the show, however, creative impulses must contend with practical necessities. As counterintuitive as it might sound, playwrights often need to account for the smallest, concrete details in order to honor their larger artistic visions.

Just ask Laura Eason, whose dense and thorny two hander Sex with Strangers is playing through Aug. 24 at Second Stage Theatre.

Written in 2009, Eason’s script has gone through a number of tweaks over time (previous productions have been at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company.) “The core of the story has remained the same,” says Eason during a break from the writer’s room at the hit Netflix drama House of Cards. “But three things in particular have evolved.”

The first is the role of technology. Sex with Strangers follows a fraught affair between Olivia, a novelist, and Ethan, a sex blogger who admires her lofty work. Ethan is unsurprisingly dedicated to new media, and he tries to convince Olivia to self-publish. However, Eason says, “there are things about the reality of self-publishing that weren’t so prevalent in 2009.” During a previous production, for instance, the playwright says audiences gasped when Ethan gives Olivia an iPad. “Some people had never seen the iPad in real life, now we all have them.”

It’s been crucial for Eason to incorporate this tech evolution, even if the play itself is not primarily about technology. “Of course you want to write something that will endure and resonate, but sometimes when you’re overly focused on a piece enduring you miss the moment you’re in,” she says. Echoing her character Olivia, she adds, “Thinking your play will live forever? How arrogant. If I get more than one production I’m grateful!” [Read more →]

July 29, 2014   No Comments

Which Shows Will You See More Than Once?

Lily Rabe in "Merchant of Venice"

Lily Rabe in  The Merchant of Venice

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.

This week, Stages editor Mark Blankenship geeks out (via Gchat) with Sarah D. Bunting,  East Coast Editor at Previously.TV.

Today’s Topic: Why do we want to see certain shows more than once?

Mark Blankenship: So Sarah… a few days ago, you made a passing comment about actors that I found really intriguing. Not to put you on the spot, but would you mind flawlessly recreating that thought as though it’s just occurring to you now?

Sarah D. Bunting: No problem whatsoever, Mark! My esteemed spouse was recently in a play, and after opening night, we were discussing the feel of the house on opening night and what it’s like for the company the SECOND night of a production. (In my experience, everyone has an adrenaline dip, and you have the highest incidence of mistakes and missed cues.) We talked about how sometimes a small house with a loud laugher is better than a full house that isn’t sure they’re “with” the play. I’m fascinated by that sort of thing, so I was wishing that we had a literary sub-genre of diaries kept by members of long-running shows, tracking the changes in the house, in the performances, in how outside events/weather seemed to affect the mood of a performance, etc.

I was thinking in particular of Linda Emond, who played Linda Loman in the recent Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Mark: Oh, interesting! What made you think of her as a potential “performance diarist?”

Sarah: It’s her performance that stuck with me from that production. She and Finn Wittrock as Happy both brought something new and riveting to the conceptions of the characters. Plus, Emond is a Law & Order day player of long standing and has been around, so I think she’d have the vocabulary for the project, as well as the experience.

Mark: I love this idea. It’s not unlike the daily stage manager’s report, but filtered through the experience of someone who’s on stage. This sort of thing really fascinates me… the idea of being with a show for weeks and weeks or even years and years.

Sarah: Yes. And the way data would reveal themselves after a certain number of months. And actors are very attuned to this kind of thing.

Mark: I know, for instance, that in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, there’s now an entire spit-take scene that didn’t exist when the show opened. It developed slowly over time.

Sarah: My husband noticed a difference after two performances of his play, just because the curtain moved from 7 to 9. Several years ago, my own play had to be revised because an actor was stuck in traffic. We left the change in; it worked better.

Mark: Haha! Really? Was she late for a rehearsal or a performance?

Sarah: Performance! She was stuck on a bus thanks to an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel. We flipped her monologue with someone else’s and it seemed to flow better, so we left it.

Mark: That’s incredible. And that story speaks to something larger about this idea. What we’re getting at, I think, is something about how alluring the “liveness” of theatre can be. How it’s never going to be the same, even when the script is frozen.

Sarah: Yes! My husband’s fake sneeze got a little too real for the front row the other night, and one guy said, audibly, “Live theatre!”

Mark: He actually sneezed on the guy?

Sarah: There was a blob.

Mark: Hahaha! Gross!

Sarah: And yet: unique! It won’t happen again, because now Dan will be sure not to hit the civilians when he sneezes. [Read more →]

July 28, 2014   1 Comment

Hamlet’s Mother Is a Sexy Beast

Pamela J. Gray & David Barlow

Pamela J. Gray & David Barlow

Potomac Theatre Project embraces the mania in Howard Barker’s play

When you’re standing next to Hamlet, fondling his mother’s underwear, there’s really no point in being restrained. Or at least not according to Richard Romagnoli, who directed that lascivious scene for Potomac Theatre Project’s production of Gertrude — The Cry.

Now at Atlantic Stage 2, Romagnoli’s staging of Howard Barker’s play seethes with sexuality and menace. Cribbing wildly from Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, the script begins with Gertrude convincing Claudius to poison her husband (Hamlet’s father), and from there it follows her sexual and intellectual rampage through her kingdom. Will she continue sleeping with Claudius even after she beds Albert, a visiting duke? Absolutely. But she’ll also grapple with her body and the people who want to control it, whether they’re jealous lovers or her morose son Hamlet, who fixates on punishing her for her supposed sins.

If that sounds morally complicated, well… of course it is. And Barker’s style makes it impossible to simplify his ideas. The second the play seems like a heavy-hearted lament, for instance, he’ll add a bawdy burst of humor about someone’s genitals. “His tones changes with virtually every other line, and that’s one thing I really enjoy about Howard’s work,” Romagnoli says. “He leads you on a certain trail of pathos or comedy, then undercuts it almost instantly. It’s wonderful to have to deal with those things and create realities for them, as opposed to something traditionally ‘realistic.’” [Read more →]

July 25, 2014   No Comments

What are your favorite “guilty pleasure” shows?

Bring It On

Bring It On

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.

This week, Stages contributor Jack Smart geeks out (via Google doc) with Nate Silver, Managing Director of Chicago’s Jackalope Theatre and assistant director of the upcoming Broadway production of Disgraced, which previously played at Lincoln Center.

Today’s Topic: What are your favorite “guilty pleasure” shows… and what constitutes a “guilty pleasure” anyway?

Jack Smart: Well hello there, Nate. You and I have managed to see a lot of theatre together despite the fact that I’m in New York and you live in Chicago. I feel like we tend to see the kind of theatre some audience members might have a hard time publicly admitting they like. I think everyone has their tastes and preferences, but some shows are generally deemed “classy,” while others must be enjoyed secretly. What do you think? How low under the bar of lowbrow culture are we “allowed” to limbo? Is there something shameful about sitting gleefully among dozens of tweens in princess dresses at the very first preview of Cinderella? That was us, after all.

Nate Silver: For me, going to the theatre means different things at different times—to satisfy different cravings for different moods. In the same way that I am equally engaged by Mad Men and Modern Family, there’s a place for both Bring It On: The Musical and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Sure, there’s the idea of hate-watching (see Smash), but I inherently trust the theatre more than television. If something makes it all the way to Broadway—if it has financial backers, critical interest, a top-notch production team, actors at the top of their game—I’m going to see it. Bring It On was a surprise high point for me. I’ve never seen that brand of athleticism onstage. I had a similar experience at Rocky: I’ve never seen a set move in the way that one did. Was I truly moved by either of those musicals? No, not really. Was I actually, legitimately, not faking it, shamelessly entertained? You bet. Sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

Jack: Yeah, Bring It On was a revelation for me. So original and infectiously fun. For a while after seeing that show, I was met with obvious skepticism when I recommended it to friends. But I think it’s our responsibility as audience members and appreciators of art to champion the fun, frothy shows just as much as the serious, highbrow ones.

Nate: Recommending shows to people is so hard. Because tickets are such an investment, I don’t want to guide them to something they end up not enjoying. Knowing a person’s interests and background is crucial. In my summer job as the Director of Operations at the National Student Leadership Conference in NYC (the main reason I’m able to see so much theatre here), I am in the position of recommending shows to people who have never seen a production on Broadway before. So I don’t necessarily tell them about the things that I enjoyed the most, but the things that sell Broadway to newcomers and exemplify the magic of live theatre. I send them to The Lion King, to Wicked, to The Phantom of the Opera… People lose their minds over Phantom.

Jack: For real.

Nate: I am still interested in this idea of “the point” of theatre, though. Like, is it not crazy that The Realistic Joneses and A Raisin in the Sun were playing just a few blocks away from Rock of Ages last season?

Jack: Hah, yes. I wonder what the midway point is in that spectrum. Is there a show that embodies both highbrow and lowbrow? I mean, going back to what you said earlier, can you think of a show that genuinely moved you and made you “actually, legitimately, not faking it, shamelessly entertained?” And would you have any shame about recommending such a production?

Nate: Next to Normal, David Cromer’s Our Town, and Once all come to mind. So does Eastland, a 2012 musical about the tragedy of the SS Eastland, at the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago. The first time I saw Clybourne Park I was floored. Same with Good People. That still stands as a flawless play in my mind. No shame about recommending any of those.

Jack: Clybourne Park!! Political incorrectness is such a guilty pleasure. But what’s the difference between those shows and the ones that make you wince when you recommend them? Recommending Next to Normal makes me wince a little bit because we were such fanatics. I’m pretty sure we went the second time just to watch Marin Mazzie’s gigantic beautiful mouth again. [Read more →]

July 24, 2014   4 Comments