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BRYCE BRIDGES

Brave New Worlds

Playwrights assemble for the sixth annual Great Plains Theatre Conference

(Ed's Note: GPTC-goers, be sure to pick up a print copy of The Reader, which is complete with a special insert featuring a full GPTC schedule.) The playwrights assemble, not on your average prairie, but at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, which brings the creators of brave new worlds to the middle of the country. At Metropolitan Community College and the many stages of Omaha, a flood of drama surges for the sixth year of this gathering. But it may crest at a mid-day luncheon program on the first day of June when it explores the prolific creativity of honored playwright Lee Blessing. It's called, "Discovering Different Worlds" -- something that also happens at 35 play readings, classes and full productions of five plays from morning to evening. More than 400 writers submitted work; 40 will hear them read or see them performed. But only Blessing will see two of his 31 plays fully staged, so why not enter one of his worlds, a play titled Fortinbras? The scene is a somber one of bloody carnage. Among the dead and dying, a Dane named Hamlet. His friend Horatio speaks in mournful farewell: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Sound familiar? Wait until Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway, drops in after warring with the Poles and says, "Hi. So -- God what is all this? They all just kill each other or what?" As Scott Working, the GPTC staffer who plays this title role, puts it, "Then he starts running things pretty much." Before long, he plans to blend Norway and Denmark into the Norweenish or Daneweegians or something like that, but causes anxious confusion when he orders his captain to bring him the heads of the electors. And it gets worse when the captain returns with something round in a bag Soon he's making up a story about a Polish spy to explain the carnage, and summoning two Polish maidens to his bed. But then the ghosts of Hamlet, an over-sexed Ophelia, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude show up and it's less fun for would-be King Fortinbras, but more fun when it plays 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 2, at Creighton's Lied Center And Blessing's other conference play, A Walk in the Woods (7:30 p.m. Friday at Creighton), is a completely different world. It's his work most familiar to theater-goers because it played on London's West End, and on Broadway before being shown on the PBS "American Playhouse" with Sam Waterston as the American diplomat in nuclear negotiations with the Soviet played by Robert Protsky. It begins with them sitting on a bench in a mountain slope outside Geneva, with the Russian describing how he told a network reporter that Brezhnev always began Politburo meetings by saying, "The survival of the Soviet Union depends on the total annihilation of America." Omaha theater-goers can hear that line coming from Paul Boesing, one of our finest actors, and see Nick Zadina playing the American reply with a smile, "You told him that?" To which Boesing's Russian quips, "How was I to know he'd believe it?" And so begins a dialogue, more frustrating to Honeyman the American than Andrey Botvinnick who has been at it longer. A fascinating friendship of sorts evolves, until the American asks, "What is our special handicap as negotiators?" and the Russian says quietly, "A conscience." Still, the geopolitical arguments are infused with humanity, and thus with hope. (Blessing jokes that Gorbachev hurt his playwriting career by ending the arms race.) Perhaps Blessing's blend of the topical and timely with the personal -- why Kevin Lawler, the producing and artistic director of the conference, finds his mix of diverse worlds full of "intelligence and compassion" -- is better understood by considering his play, Going to St. Ives. It also features two characters, but this time two women, a white English eye surgeon and an African mother of a monstrous black dictator, much like Idi Amin. It deals with the developed world vs. the undeveloped world, but at the personal level, with mothers and their sons. As for again using two characters, Blessing learned after a rough start that "No play should have any more characters than it absolutely needs to have." His first play, which dealt with Billy the Kid, began full of many minor characters, then was boiled down to two men in a cabin. He broke the rule in Fortinbras. "I added the Polish maidens," he admits, because parts were needed for his MFA students when it was produced in LaJolla. And the production celebrated the grand opening of a new playhouse, "So they wanted something with all the bells and whistles … even trap doors." Omahans recently had the opportunity to view staged readings of two more of his plays that range into different worlds: Great Falls, another two-character play with a stepfather taking an angry, unwilling daughter on a road trip from Fremont, Nebraska, to Wall Drug, Yellowstone and Montana and back; and Two Rooms, one a cell imprisoning an American held by terrorists in Lebanon, the other his office in Washington, D.C., where his wife waits for him. Like so many conference events, "Count Your Blessings," as the evening was named, involved a partnership between the GPTC and, in this case, the Omaha Community Playhouse, with its staff member, Lara Marsh, directing. In Great Falls, the stepdaughter (Olivia Sather), angry with her mother over divorces from her father and the stepfather (Michael Markey) she accuses of kidnapping her, brands herself "Bitch" and him "Monkey Man." He praises the South Dakota badlands and she gripes about its ugliness. When she lightens up enough to buy a jackalope at Wall Drug, she accuses him of sexual fantasies about her and names the critter "Vicious penis destroyer." He's thrilled at the eruption of Old Faithful; she buries her head in a blanket. Thanks to a compelling script and strong performances by Sather and Markey, the arc of their difficult relationship as they travel the west makes a powerful impact as it evolves over the miles and surprising revelations. Two Rooms, as it ranges from the Washington office to the cell in Lebanon, again underlines the way Blessing, born and raised in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka and a playwriting student in Iowa, explores diverse worlds yet remains rooted in personal and universal qualities. His life also stretches across America. I expected to call him an hour ahead of us in the east -- he lives in Brooklyn and teaches playwriting at Rutgers -- but found him two hours behind us. He was in Los Angeles, where his wife Melanie Marnich, another Minnesotan, writes for television. Blessing tends "quite naturally" to multi-faceted subjects, and finds it "very satisfying to me as an artist." But it's "rather frustrating in terms of making a career." Critics, producers and audiences look for "a repeatable product," which he identifies as "a marketing phenomenon directly opposed" to his "artistic impulses." He gets "far too much pleasure writing plays which are not like each other" to conform to establishment views of "this as a form of madness." (You can catch more of that insight when he joins other luncheon panelists on Thursday, June 2, for the topic "Navigating, challenging, or dismissing the dominant power structures in production and publication without losing your creative mojo.") That conflict hasn't kept his award-winning plays from being widely produced, at least off-Broadway and in prominent regional theaters. The Eugene O'Neill National Playwriters Conference has produced eight of his plays, more than by any other playwright. The Profile Theater in Portland, Oregon, devoted its entire 2010-ll season to his works, and Fortinbras was among three commissioned by the LaJolla Playhouse. He has been enjoying the stimulus of conferences like the Great Plains for three decades because he gets "a great deal of value. Anytime you have established writers talking seriously with those who read their work and aspire to master the craft themselves, it's a crucially important opportunity for both groups." And, as GPTC organizer Lawler reminds, "It's an amazing shot of energy for the theater community here." Kevin works on the conference year-round, but gets "really busy" from mid-December through early June "herding cats," which includes assigning directors for the many plays and aiding them in casting. One change in this sixth event will bring even more playwrights to Omaha. In the first years, Lawler explained, they paid their own way and about 60 percent came. "Now we waived the registration fee and provide housing, and 85 percent of playwrights plan to attend." The 40 whose writing will be presented are accompanied by a dozen or so others who will serve on panels. If Blessing's work will receive more attention than any other single playwright, many win valuable exposure. Omahan Ellen Struve, for example, will hear her Recommended Reading for Girls (a woman comes home for a difficult weekend with her mother and meets Heidi, Anne of Green Gables and other favorites from childhood novels) read at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Metro. She'll hope lightning strikes twice. After her Mrs. Jennings' Sitter was read at the GPTC, it was produced locally by the Shelterbelt Theater and in New York by the Kokopelli Theater. It helps that her cast includes such luminaries as Amy Lane, Mary Kelly, Christina Rohling and Amy Schweid. Speaking of gender, the previous Sunday, May 29, will pair the Women Playwright's Fund Reception at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a fully staged treatment of Alchemy of Desire/Dead Man's Blues at 7:30 p.m. in the Weber Fine Arts Building on the UNO campus. The play by Caridad Svich, directed by Cindy Melby Phaneuf, features two local professionals, Jill Anderson and Seth Fox, in a sensuous story of lovers in a warring world "where women smoke cigars and sing to help the dead" amidst "sweat, sex, fried chicken and whiskey." And if that sounds too sweaty, try Tuesday night's 7:30 p.m. event in the Holland Center: Le Chat Noir, A Raucous Evening of Short Monologues and Plays, featuring conference favorite Constance Congdon and others, including Omaha's Timothy Siragusa and former Reader contributor, Max "Bunny" Sparber. As the television hucksters always say, and much, much more. But think of the effort that went into all the writing and then the preparation of each production. M. Michele Phillips, the Omahan who directs Fortinbras, puts her finger on the unique problems of "the time, resources and manpower" of getting ready for a single performance. "It's the same investment as for a long run, but you only have one chance to get it right. And there's the added stress of performing in front of the playwright and hoping he thinks you get it right." She "lucked out" two years ago directing Loose Knit by honored playwright Theresa Rebeck, who made it known that she was impressed with Omaha's treatment of her play. Like other conference offerings, it was picked up here and performed by SNAP! Blessing says not to worry about his response to the productions of his two plays. "I like my plays or I wouldn't write them."

posted at 09:45 pm
on Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

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