Lorri Holt, Randy Danson, Clifton Guterman and Reed Birneyin Finn in the Underworld
(Photo © Kevin Berne)
Lorri Holt, Randy Danson, Clifton Guterman and Reed Birney
in Finn in the Underworld
(Photo © Kevin Berne)
Let's face it: As far as the horror genre goes, film has theater beaten. Sure, Shakespeare's Macbeth is arguably the most frightening play of the Western canon, and if you're not unnerved by the plays of Sarah Kane, you ought to check your pulse. But, as a rule, it's much harder to shock people on stage. Les Waters is trying to change that in directing the rising playwright Jordan Harrison's Finn in the Underworld.

The play involves Gwen and Rhonda cleaning out their dead father's house and encountering the ghosts of his past -- both literally and figuratively. According to Waters, "It's in the same genre as Henry James's Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. One of the reasons I was really attracted to the play was that it unnerved me."

Directing the show on Berkeley Rep's small thrust stage has been a mixed blessing. "The great thing about it is that it's so intimate," Waters says, "but if you're trying to control exactly what the audience is looking at, it makes it harder when the audience is on three sides because they're getting different perspectives on the stage." To overcome the limitations of the space, the set design incorporates a unique special effect that Waters won't reveal for fear of ruining the surprise.

Although he has worked with established playwrights like Charles Mee and Paula Vogel, Waters took to relative newcomer Harrison when he encountered his play Kid Simple at the Humana Festival. Then, as luck had it, Waters found out that Harrison's literary agent was his former student. The match wasn't only good on paper; the two have collaborated so well that Harrison was present during the entire rehearsal process, taking notes and making revisions.

Waters grew up in London and has had extensive experience on both sides of the pond, winning a Fringe First Award in Edinburgh and an Obie in New York. During his career, he has found significant differences in working here and abroad. "In America," he remarks, "you try to do a new play in four weeks. The pressure's pretty high because you want to be able to explore it, talk about it, reveal things about it, but there is a rather large clock ticking at the back of the rehearsal room."

-- A.K.

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Andrea Gallo and Ian August in Tilt Angel
(Photo © SuzAnne Barabas)
Andrea Gallo and Ian August in Tilt Angel
(Photo © SuzAnne Barabas)
In Dan Dietz's latest play, Tilt Angel, a mother leaves her Tennessee family to pursue her lifelong dream of going to college, but her plane crashes along the way. "The story is about how the father and the son cope with this and deal with the fact that they're estranged from each other as well," says Dietz. Sounds like a straightforward family drama -- but Dietz throws in a couple of curveballs. In one scene, a character travels through telephone wires, and in another, someone flies.

Such stage directions can strike fear into the hearts of theater companies, but they certainly caught the attention of New Jersey Repertory, which is presenting Tilt Angel. Dietz's lush style also hooked the Salvage Vanguard Theatre in his hometown of Austin, Texas, with which he often works. "[These companies] like nothing better than to take a play that seems impossible to stage, and stage it," says Dietz, who acknowledges that finding directors intrepid enough to do them is a daunting task. "When I find a director who really 'gets' my voice," he says, "I really cling to that person."

Dietz partly developed his quirky style while writing English translations of Japanese animated films for ADD, the largest distributor of anime in North America. "I was really into anime in my teens and early 20s because I was just fascinated by its storytelling traditions, as well as the idea of fusing man and machine and the high-octane action sequences," he says. His favorite anime series that he's worked on is Dai-Guard -- about a team of hapless office workers forced to commandeer a giant robot to save the world -- which ran here briefly on the Cartoon Network.

His playwriting career began to take off after he submitted one of his short works to the Humana Festival on a teacher's recommendation to his graduating class. ("She said, 'Someone's bad play is going to win this contest; it might as well be your bad play.' ") Like most emerging playwrights, Dietz constantly submits scripts to theaters around the country. He remarks: "Those two things, really working on my voice and the pieces I was writing and being brave or stupid enough to spend all that money on postage, have seemed to work for me."

For a time, Dietz worked with an underground theatrical society known as RAT, a collective so shadowy that it never even defined its acronym. "It sort of envisioned this idea of theaters that were willing to take risks and do a lot with a little," he explains. Most of RAT's members were small companies but, according to Dietz, a few of them tried to bring their aesthetic to the mainstream. "As the audiences for larger theaters start to dwindle, which they are, my hope is that those theaters will find themselves in a position where they need to take a risk," Dietz says. "That's my hope, anyway."

-- A.K.

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Danforth Comins and James Newcomb in Richard III
(Photo © David Cooper)
Danforth Comins and James Newcomb in Richard III
(Photo © David Cooper)
A number of theater festivals utilize the name "Shakespeare" in their titles even if they don't focus exclusively on the Bard's works. One of the largest of these is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which wraps up its 70th season on October 30.

According to artistic director Libby Appel, Shakespeare serves as a standard for choosing both contemporary and classical works for the festival. "It's really hard for us to do something extremely trivial," she says. By way of example, she cites the works of Neil Simon, whom she describes as "a clever American playwright but -- from a language point of view, a character point of view, even a stylistic point of view -- he doesn't measure up with the kinds of choices we make every year."

Among those that did make the cut this season and are playing until the end of the month are The Belle's Stratagem, a 1780 play by Hannah Cowley; the classic 1938 American farce Room Service; August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; and Gibraltar, a new work by Octavio Solis that was commissioned specifically for the festival. "Octavio came here and worked for seven weeks with a group of actors, improvising on some ideas that he had, and from that he grew the play," says Appel. "In a structure as rigid and careful as ours, to develop a play from scratch is an unusual experience, so I'm very proud of that. It's a magical and mysterious piece about grief and about love."

Appel is also directing two of this year's works herself: Eduardo De Filippo's Napoli Milionaria! and Shakespeare's Richard III. "We've had an incredible response to our Richard III," she says. "I think audiences today have an understanding of the arrogance of power, the whole idea of the private grab versus the public good or ill, which is what Shakespeare's history plays are about. I'm not alluding to our President; I'm alluding to the world situation. Nothing has changed since Shakespeare wrote his plays in the 16th century."

As the 2005 season draws to a close, plans are already well underway for the 2006 slate of shows, which will include The Diary of Anne Frank, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and King John, David Edgar's adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the world premiere of Bridget Carpenter's Up. Appel, who has been artistic director of the OSF for the last 10 years and will be retiring two years from now, says that the festival has been the ideal place for her to work. "We're willing to take risks with commissions of new plays in addition to our absolute dedication to the classics," she says. "I love the dedication to language, to challenging texts that both the company and our audience are willing to embrace."

-- D.B.