Shelterbelt Theatre branches in new directions in its 20th year of growth, continuing to engirdle, foster, and nourish talent with Nebraska roots. Nothing radical will emerge, mind you. The mission remains the same as it always has been, bringing to light new work at its home on California Street.

Yet, the latest production, The Battle of Battles, by Omaha’s Joe Basque, ventures into territory rarely explored there before, an historical, costume comedy derived from real events. Thus doth this season continue to flourish. And, on the near horizon, another new work emerges, Abby’s Last Summer by A. P. Andrews, born and raised in Superior, NE. That’s in July. So are staged play readings in the fresh series Before the Boards.

Basque takes on a big and stimulating theme, the nature of artistic creation. He focuses on 16th century giants, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and has written a fascinating script full of colorful, interesting, intelligent material about the artists and their work, referring amusingly to famed masterpieces not depicted during the story. Raucous, provocative, comic details fill in the spaces not covered on scholarly pages. His imaginative choice of subject certainly looks like a winning proposition for productions elsewhere.

Director Daena Schweiger has superb assistance from Roxanne and Dan Wach who devised remarkably flexible and impressive projections of paintings central to the developments. As for the cast, on opening night, Schweiger had the two main characters going full-bore vocally, perhaps justifying their larger-than- life reputations but in volume which exceeds the needs of the small performing venue.

By contrast, two other characters seem almost tame. They are Nicolò Machiavelli and Piero Soderini. Soderini was central to what actually happened. As the head of Florence’s elected government, he came up with the idea of this genuine artistic contest. Machiavelli was a close ally and may have been important to the idea, although that’s not certain.

In 1503 and 1504 Leonardo and Michelangelo were commissioned to paint large frescoes celebrating battles in which the forces of Florence were pitted against those of enemies. And to do so, back to back, in the Palazzo Vecchio’s Council Hall. Soderini’s motivation was to attract attention to such famed men celebrating and honoring events whose visualization could stimulate pride and patriotism. Basque also suggests that Machiavelli wanted them to do this to distract the populace from an ongoing, long war with Pisa.

The play primarily delves into the contest, focusing on the aggressive hostility that heated up the soon-to-be-masterfully decorated hall.  The artists hated each other. Insults are hurled. Fights erupt. Frequently. We also see Machiavelli finding clever ways to get both men to agree to enter the contest. And witness Soderini, dismayed at how far are the works from what he had hoped for.

Basque comes up with many trenchant, pointed observations about artists’ egos, their working methods, and about patrons’ insensitivity to the true creative process. He also has written quite a few funny lines.

Added to the tale is a deliberately comic character nicknamed “Salai” (in Italian “the little unclean one”), likewise drawn from life. Salai was a pupil of Leonardo. Here he’s portrayed as the master’s young lover. Given this and both famed painters’ homosexuality, that issue regularly comes out, especially due to Leonardo’s bitchy jibes about his opponent’s predilections. You could take Salai to be a characteristic servant as often seen in Commedia dell'arte, emerging around the same time as the events in the play. A clever device.

Basque adds the amusing element of having Salai talk directly to the audience. Other characters do likewise, mocking the public’s eagerness to passively partake, like Florentines gawking at the contest, even when nothing is happening. Watching paint dry. 

Randy Vest has lots of feisty, believable, memorable dimensions as Michelangelo, getting across his immature volatility. That makes a good contrast to Andy Niess’ successful portrayal of Leonardo as arch and smug, convinced of his own superiority.

Noah Diaz plays Salai, going at it rather heavily on opening night. Broad strokes, instead of subtlety. Director Schweiger could still tone that down, along with tempering the yelling. Paul Schneider’s Soderini comes across as convincingly bewildered and innocent, as if intimidated by wife Argentina Malaspina, capably represented by Sara Planck. As for Mike Palmreuter’s take on Machiavelli, he seems no more than a vague sketch, a far cry from the man’s reputation as a wily intellectual.

You might wonder why Basque chose to write this. You won’t learn that from the program book. Not an art student nor an historian, but a lawyer, he describes reading about Leonardo and coming across a few intriguing sentences about these events. He researched elsewhere. “It seemed like an irresistible story,” he explains.

You also won’t learn about Basque from the program book. This is his third play at Shelterbelt, preceded by Ping Pong Diplomacy from 2005, likewise  spun off from history. And Basque touched on homosexuality before in 2006’s Defending Marriage.

The first play scored points off-Broadway, not the only appearance for writers whose works have debuted at Shelterbelt. Others include Ellen Struve, Max Sparber, and Beaufield Berry. Thirty year-old Berry is now Shelterbelt’s Director of Marketing and PR. And the present Board of Directors consists of her contemporaries.

As Berry points out, youth has no bearing on the choice of plays or subject matter. “We always encourage new and unknown playwrights and are open to anyone.” As for possible emerging new directions regarding content, she comments, “We have been crossing over into somewhat ‘raw’ territory but without alienating our core audience, even though we’ve never tried to avoid controversy. We present American theatre as it lives in 2014.”

Her play Happy Hour can be heard at a staged reading July 15th directed by Denise Chapman. And afterwards comes The Other Sewing Circle by Omaha’s Marie Amthor due July 28th. These are in the free Before the Boards series.

Prior to both, starting July 10tt ,  is A.P. Andrews’ Abby in the Summer. This is his debut at Shelterbelt. The script first appeared in a 2010 staged reading at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. It is one of 10 plays in his interconnected series Nebraska Cycle, all taking place in the fictional town of Jaconda. He describes this as a coming-of-age experience relevant to Middle America, where “people try to find their places in the world” and about examining and rebuilding cultural and political bridges, “burned through current political positioning and pandering.”

Artistic Director Beth Thompson will stage it. “As a small town Nebraska girl myself,” she points out, “I relate to Abby, and I’m interested to see how ‘big city folk’ react.  The journey is similar in all of us, but where you come from defines how well you are prepared to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, there is also the question of the future Shelterbelt season. Thompson has thorough plans for that, but details are yet to be fully revealed. As of this writing, all the new plays have been chosen. What remains is finalization to fix everything in the firmament. Thompson does say that the scripts deal with “fidelity, abandonment, HIV, cancer, social anxiety, drug abuse. And that’s just skimming the surface.” She adds, “There is a survival element as we enter into this new phase. We have been around for over 20 years, and in some ways I think that we are just getting started.”

The Battle of Battles continues through May 11 at 3225 California Street, Omaha. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-$15.

Shelterbelt Extends Its Horizons

An excellent new play emerges

posted at 04:01 pm
on Sunday, April 27th, 2014

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