John Patrick Shanley's Storefront Church Goes (North) Hollywood
Director Ronnie Marmo brings the Tony Award-winning writer’s comedy-drama to Theatre 68.
Ronnie Marmo, one of the founding members of 68 Cent Crew, also known as Theatre 68, helms his second production, the west coast premiere of John Patrick Shanley's Storefront Church, at the company's new space, The NoHo Arts Center. This new production stars Theatre 68 members Ed Dyer, Alan Ehrlich, Aris Alvarado, Johnnett Kent, Steven Stanton, and Charles Hoyes. Marmo discusses his directing latest production, growing up in an Italian Catholic family, and laying out what is up next for Theatre 68.
How did your relationship with John Patrick Shanley begin?
There is a book of Shanley's called 13 by Shanley, seven full-length and five short plays, [which includes Danny and the Deep Blue Sea]. Four years ago, I had an idea to do them all in repertory. I contacted Shanley and we struck up a friendship. The production ran for six months with one short and one [long form] a night. Joe Mantegna, Danny Nucci, and Michael Rooker directed several and I did two pieces. [In 2011], John sent me a world premiere one-act, Last Night in the Garden I Saw You [for the theater company].
When I was got the chance to do the West Coast premiere [of Storefront Church], I pounced on it. I didn't get a chance to see it in New York. I had the rights for nine months waiting for the moment to do it.
What made this the right time to produce the show?
We wanted to make a place for ourselves in North Hollywood. It was Christmastime [the setting for the play]. There is something about telling this story in [our] intimate space.
What about the play touched you and made you want to produce?
Growing up in an Italian-Catholic family, I understood so many of these themes: faith, God, religion. I liked the debate and the conversation. Depending on when you catch me in the day, I'll answer one way or the other. It's been a lifetime struggle coming to peace with religion. Donaldo [one of the play's protagonists] keeps his eye on the prize and thinks his life is going one way. He has given up on who he is. The play takes him on a journey. We all seek outside things, but at the end realize that it's family and community that are important. I really identified with the pain and struggle. The woman Jessie works so hard, she believes in this man [the preacher Chester Kimmich] so deeply. The question is, how far are you willing to go for what you believe in?
There is a lot of ambiguity about the preacher man — his motives and his intentions — which are not answered in the text. What are your thoughts on Chester Kimmich?
Chester is in a pretty big depression. He mentions that in the past he could point to the problem, but [this time] he can't identify it. He just knows he's paralyzed. Having read the play, we could have gone a million ways. Was he shady? Was he not shady? I chose for him to be an authentic person paralyzed by his own mind who doesn't know how to move forward. "The Hole" is a motif in Shanley's plays. People try to fill it with money or women or work. [Chester] still believes in faith and God, he just doesn't think that God believed in him.
One of the interesting dynamics is with the interreligious couple Jessie, a devout Christian, and the Jewish Ethan.
For Jessie and Ethan, at their age, standards have changed. Now they just want a companion and to be happy. She's a strong woman and is charmed by him. Religion doesn't get in the way because he supports her. I knew a couple like Jessie and Ethan from my past. They were so in love. Both were on their second marriages and it was as if they were still on their honeymoon.
One of the clever touches to the production is Danny Cistone's set, which has walls that fold in and out to make several different locations. Is Danny a Theatre 68 regular?
Danny is a cofounder of Theatre 68. He's so talented. I said just last week that I know we have a five-day turnaround [the team's last production The Afflicted closed the week before Storefront Church opened]. He built and designed it in five days. I always have such pressure to match his amazing set designs.
What's next for Theatre 68?
I have the rights to Lenny Bruce's material. The Bruce project is my Rocky, the one I'm waiting to do. I had done two six-month runs of Lenny's Back And Boy Is He Pissed by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein. They did a wonderful job but [it didn't contain] Lenny's original material. With this new play [I'm Not a Comedian, I'm Lenny Bruce, which Marmo cowrote with Jason Burns], we're doing his life. As crazy as it sounds, that is my life purpose. I do the essence of him; I don't imitate. Bruce was really controversial, edgy, and honest. I am trying to get a good director who brings value to it and value to me because I need to be pushed to make me better.