Culture Conversations: Theatre
Stories Stripped of Pretense
SLAC's Fearless Fringe Festival
In the last weekend of August, Salt Lake Acting Company stepped out to the fringe and they did it fearlessly. From August 26 – 28, unique voices in the theatre community had a moment in the spotlight as SLAC hosted the second annual Fearless Fringe Festival, which features new theatrical work in different phases of development. The result was raw honest productions whose newness might make them vulnerable, but also makes them beautiful, and what drew a nearly packed house on Friday night. Since the plays await further development or a future run, a lengthy description of the pieces will hopefully avoid being spoilers while giving a taste of what we can expect from these playwrights and this festival.
Little Happy Secrets
On Facebook thereís an option to display your relationship status as ďitís complicated.Ē This old saying may have reached the digital age but the meaning is understood across generations because itís a universal truth: love is complicated. The phrase is a quick summary that people use even though the circumstances of those complications can be numerous and sometimes heartbreaking. Little Happy Secrets unpacks the painful and bittersweet romance between two women in a play so honest that the ache of Melissa Leilani Larsonís work feels utterly familiar.
Claire, played by Emily Bell, has just returned from her mission and is attending classes at Brigham Young University, where she is rooming with . Brennan, played by Emily Burnworth, also a returned missionary and an old friend. Through the play the audience serves as Claire's confidante as, privy to Claireís inner monologue in which she struggles with feelings of romantic love for Brennan, they discover the tension underlying the friends' happy reunion.
In these painful moments of revelation Bell expresses the characterís inner conflict with highly believable dissonance as she talks about the thrill of love and her guilt over her attraction to another woman. Itís something she believes sheís not supposed to feel, and yet she cannot deny the delicious and simple moments that make her heart flutter Ė like a briefly held hand, or hearing Brennan say that sheís missed Claire.
When Brennan meets a young man, Carter (played by Alex Ungerman), Claire inevitably becomes the third wheel and watches her best friend and secret love fall for someone else. After only four months Carter proposes to Brennan. Hearing the news, Claire feigns delight while her heart breaks.
When, around the same time, Claire reveals her feelings for Brennan to her sister Natalie, played by Elise Groves, a moment of shocked silence is followed by Natalie's rote response: Claire's confused, sheís done something wrong, she probably just hasnít met the right man yet.
When Claire returns to school from winter break, she withdraws from socializing with Brennan and Carter, but inwardly notes the differences between the couple that foreshadow an unhappy marriage: Carter's plan to apply to law schools on the West Coast implies Brennan will have to put her dreams of going to Columbia on hold. Small compromises like this add up to an uncomfortable equation in which Brennan may eventually lose herself altogether in a marriage to someone who doesnít quite understand her.
In a pivotal scene, after Claire learns that Natalie's infant child has died suddenly Brennan throws her arms around Claire in a moment of compassion. Claire is so overwhelmed she kisses Brennan, who responds in shock and drives Claire to the airport in silence.
The next time they see each other they agree one of them needs to leave, and though both offer it is Claire who ultimately packs her bags. She quits school and moves to Seattle, where she lives with her sister and takes a job at a bookstore. In her continuing monologues Claire speaks of loneliness and the hole left by Brennanís absence. During a particularly poignant prayer Claire expresses that she knows itís a sin to want someone she wasnít meant to have, but then again it wasnít her who put Brennan there for the wanting.
The story comes to a close when Claire's day-to-day life is interrupted by the arrival of Brennanís wedding invitation. The enclosed picture shows a beaming couple, but a short note enclosed specifically for Claire says something different: Stop me. Please. Claire drives through the night and makes it to the wedding in time to see the newlyweds exit the temple. She doesnít get out of the car or attend the reception. Instead Claire turns around and goes home, knowing that will make it easier for Brennan. In the final scene Claire is sitting on her sister's couch, considering the note, and though it's not all she wished for the knowledge that for a moment Brennan looked to her for help is a happy little secret Claire can carry with her.
Do Not Hit Golf Balls into Mexico
It can be difficult to put a human face on large issues like immigration and self-sacrifice but thatís what Shawn Fisherís play does. The larger picture is illegal border crossings in Arizona, but Fisher brings you closer to the image, like walking toward a painting so you can see individual strokes and fine details. Fisherís individual strokes are the well-drawn characters of his play and one incident that changes their lives forever.
Calvin Wesley, played here by John R. Belliston, is a retired Arizona bus driver, a spirited and warm man who in the opening scene beams as he tells the audience a story about his clever grandson Abel, played by Christian Seiter.
When we see him next, Calvin is being questioned by a detective investigating some bones that have been discovered near the Mexican border. They have been found near mile marker 17, a point along Calvin's old bus route that took tourists to Rocky Point, a picturesque beach and golf course. As is soon revealed, it is also the place where, five years before, Calvin crashed his bus, killing his daughter Carrie and giving Abel a head injury that has left him unable to remember anything that happened more than five minutes before.
Abel makes his first appearance at the family's Borderlands Diner, where he is playing a round of putt-putt with a beer glass for the hole. Periodically he asks when he can see his mother again, and though we catch glimpses of the clever child Calvin talked about, rather than acting like the fifteen year old he is, Abel appears to be stuck as the ten year old he was at the time of the accident.
The play's narrative is laid out in a non-linear fashion, each scene offering a piece of the puzzle that relates back to the bones, but itís not always obvious how the scenes connect to one another. For example, in one scene we meet a pair of drowsy truck drivers on a rainy night and watch them banter. Only later do we realize they are driving the semi-truck that collided with Calvinís bus and it was carrying 13 Mexicans who were crossing the border in the hope of finding a better life.
The puzzle is intriguing and the mystery moves the story along, but Fisher's emphasis is on the personal struggles of Calvin and Abel. In moments of clarity Abel realizes his mother is gone, and we seem him as the well-spoken, clever teenager he is meant to be, and still could be. He goes through a ritual in the diner of setting her apron on a chair, pulling up a seat next to it and having conversations with her. She calls him a nickname from his childhood and like a fickle teenager he says heís too old to be called that, and then changes his mind just a few minutes later.
Calvin mourns the loss of his daughter in a different way. Itís taken the joy from him and he seems able to survive only by knowing he is responsible for taking care of his grandson. Thatís because itís a fundamental part of Calvinís nature to care for people. Near the end of the play a new character is introduced, America (played by Jessica Jackson), a young girl close in age to Abel who survived the accident and to whom Calvin has been sending money the past five years. A story in the paper about the bones leads her to Calvin. She returns his cash in a pile of unopened envelopes and asks to know where her people are buried. Calvin shields himself in anger, refuses to tell her, and yells at America to leave him alone.
When America later returns, to forgive Calvin and tell him goodbye, he is gone. Instead she runs in to Abel who was starting the ritual of speaking with his mother. America encourages him and promises not to interfere. When Carrie appears she is now mother to both children, sometimes speaking Spanish to America -- though the audience knows the words, because it’s the same conversation of loss and broken hearts. It’s a heartbreaking moment of seeing how parallel Abel’s and America’s suffering has been, even though their lives have taken such divergent paths.
When America finds Calvin, in the desert, he is sitting in a circle formed by a ring of cacti, almost human in form, that folklore says can hold souls. There are 12 of them, the final resting place of those who died in the accident. America says goodbye to them and offers Calvin forgiveness and a form of solace: half her traveling companions were already dead, the other half nearly in the grave, she reveals. Calvin rescued them from their suffering.
The play ends with Calvin sitting among the 12 who were lost, reenacting the day of the accident as though the Mexicans trying to cross the border are passengers on his bus. He welcomes them with the kind-hearted demeanor we saw in the beginning of the production. He promises them safe passage on his comfortable air-conditioned bus and the lights fade as he breaks in to tears.
Both plays take on difficult political subjects, but embody them in human stories of pain and struggle that resonate in the hearts of the audience. Like Claire in Little Happy Secrets many of us have felt a love that triggers an inner dialogue of why we should or shouldn't be falling for that person. That love may even put us at odds with core beliefs, but it remains as catalyst to make us dig as deep as we can go and uncover who we are at the core. Do Not Hit Golf Balls in to Mexico is, on the surface, a play that confronts immigration issues. But like Little Happy Secrets it finds a raw nerve, an issue that some people struggle with their entire lives, and that is self-forgiveness. It's an uncomfortable process that we will go to great lengths to avoid. As the audience saw with Calvin, the journey of self forgiveness is less of a path and more an unearthing of layers. To get there you have to dig through anger, regret, blame, and so many others.
Neither play offers a "happily ever after ending." They offer something better, but it's something only found if you fearlessly venture to the fringe: stories unapologetically stripped of pretense that are told with raw honesty.
Theatre Preview: 2011-2012
On The Stage
A Look at Highlights from the Upcoming Theatrical Season
Utah has a great theatrical tradition and we look forward to the upcoming 2011-2012 season. Here are a few highlights you should check out:
University of Utah students have cooked up an eclectic season that highlights a range of performances. Highlights include cult classics like Hair and timeless classics like A Midsummer Nightís Dream.
Broadway Across America- Utah
Mayor Becker is running into trouble getting his downtown theatre project approved, but
some of the biggest Broadway plays are still on their way to Utah, including Disneyís Beauty and the Beast and Wicked.
Covey Center Black Box Theatre
For February the center will perform three short plays with the same title: Blind Date. One is by the late Horton Foote and the other two by local playwrights
Melissa Lelani Larson (author of Little Happy Secrets, see left column).
Upcoming shows include the 50th anniversary of the Fantastiks, the longest running musical, and Park City Burlesque.
Hale Center Theatre
Hale Center Theatre has a great line-up of family friendly performances including the Utah premiere of The Gameís Afoot, a comedic mystery starring one of the greatest detectives of all time, Sherlock Holmes.
Kingsbury Hall Center for the Performing Arts
For its upcoming season Kingsbury Hall continues its tradition of offering eclectic and engaging performances you wonít see anywhere else. This includes the Kronos Quartet performing Awakening and Circus Oz.
Pioneer Theatre Company
Noted young playwright Wendy MacLeod offers a new take on romance in the world premiere of Find and Sign in January.
Plan Ė B Theatre Company
Lady Macbeth has delivered some of the most famous lines in classic theatre, but she isnít known for being funny. Playwright Aden Ross is about turn all that on its head in a world premiere named after the title character that kicks off Plan Ė B Theatre Companyís season on October 27.
Pygmalion Theatre Company
The Pygmalion Theatre Company has yet to announce their upcoming season but expect good things from this company whose mission is to produce plays which reflect issues, concerns and shared experiences in the lives of women.
Salt Lake Acting Company
What would happen if a paleontologist found herself teaching in a small town where the people she encounters are literally living relics? Find out in the hilarious world premiere of Course 86B in the Catalogue from resident playwright Kathleen Cahill (our February 2011 edition featured a video interview with the playwright).
The Classical Greek Theatre Festival at Westminster College has a new home. The inaugural performance will be Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides on September 16 in the Richer Commons.