All Over the Map
Uncle Vanya in Seattle, Mary's Wedding in Westport, and The Thousandth Night in Los Angeles.
"Craig has brought his signature sort of lean, contemporary style to this wonderful play," says Guettel, who worked with both Lucas and Sher on Piazza. "It's a little shorter than the play normally is, and it moves beautifully. I've enjoyed setting some of it to music because it forces me into directions I probably wouldn't go if I were developing my own material. Being a servant to someone else's vision is very healthy, at least for me, and it helps me come up with my own stuff when I have the opportunity."
Asked to describe the style of music he's written for Vanya, Guettel ventures: "I've used a kind of Slavic folk idiom as my departure point. I put that sort of music through my own function machine, and out the other side comes something that people might recognize as my music. In a way, I hope they do, but in another way, I hope they don't. I aspire to create different kinds of music and not do the same thing every time."
Does he feel that Uncle Vanya would be appropriate for treatment as a musical or an opera? "No," he replies quickly. "It's absolutely the most glorious writing, and it makes such great sense on an emotional-psychological level, but it just doesn't seem like a very sing-y piece to me."
Plays set during a war, performed at a time when our nation is actually involved in a war, always have a certain resonance. "Audiences would have to be numb and have fallen asleep during the play not to see that there is a parallel and a relevance to what they're watching," says Tazewell Thompson, who is directing Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. That said, Thompson -- the theater's artistic director -- wants to make clear that the show doesn't take either a pro or con view on war itself. "What it does show is how war separates two young individuals and tears families apart," he remarks. "I think people will walk away saying that this was a great love story with the war as a significant background."
Set during World War I, Mary's Wedding tells the story of Charlie, a young Canadian farm boy, and Mary, an English girl recently relocated to Canada. They meet in a barn while sheltering from a storm and instantly fall in love, but he soon goes off to Europe to fight in the war, keeping in touch with his beloved through letters. This is no mere epistolary drama, however; Mary imagines herself with Charlie in the trenches, and the actress playing her in this two-hander also takes on the role of Sgt. Flowers, who leads Charlie's company in battle.
While Flowers is modeled after the historical figure Lieutenant Major Flowerdew and the play incorporates actual events such as the Battle of Moreuil Wood, in which Flowerdew led what has been termed "The Last Great Cavalry Charge," the love story at the heart of the play has a different origin. "It's based on what Stephen Massicotte was going through in his courtship and breakup with his girlfriend when he wrote this," says Thompson. "I sobbed when I read it. It's under 90 minutes, but it really packs an emotional wallop."
"The one-man-show is an exercise in self-reliance," says Ron Campbell, who has starred in quite a few of them during his 28-year career as a professional actor. His current outing, The Thousandth Night, at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles, was written expressly for him by playwright Carol Wolf in 1991 after she saw him do a one-man version of A Tale of Two Cities.
Campbell plays 38 different roles in the play, which is set in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II. His main character is a French actor named Guy de Bonheur, who has been arrested for propagating subversive materials and is trying to convince the guards not to put him on the next train to Buchenwald. In a desperate ploy to save his skin, he entertains the French gendarmes by regaling them with tales from The Arabian Nights, much as Scheherezade told stories to the sultan Schahriah to delay her own death sentence.
The Thousandth Night was partially inspired by the Café Scheherezade, which operated in Paris during the occupation. "Far from suffering during that time, French entertainers were actually doing quite well," says Campbell. "There were all these Germans in town with lots of money, and they needed places to go. The cabaret culture was really flourishing." In the play, Guy must act out his company's repertory all by himself. "What we did was envision the actors who would be in that company, and what roles they would play," says Campbell. "Then I would play the actor who played the role playing the role."
Guy goes on a significant journey during the course of the play. "He's pretty much a weasel at the start, trying to get out of this train station and back to where there's wine, food, and song" says Campbell. "I teach acting up at Berkeley Rep, and I tell my students, 'We love to see a clown in trouble.' That's what we have in this show. We take the audience on a ride where they throw their heads back in laughter, so that their jugulars are exposed. That's when we cut in a little bit with the ideas of personal responsibility that the play brings out."