All Over the Map
Emma in Mountain View, CA, Lazarus Syndrome in Washington D.C., and The Fool (Returns to His Chair) in Chicago.
The musical, which is faithful to the time and place of Austen's novel, stars Lianne Dobbs as Emma Woodside, a rich debutante of sorts who vows never to take the fateful trip down the aisle, until the arrival of the dashing Frank Churchill. His presence sparks the compelling and complex question driving this play: for what and why do we wed?
"Jane Austen called Emma a character only she could love, but she was wrong about that," says Paul Gordon, the show's composer-lyricist-bookwriter. "I'd been thinking about doing this show for awhile, but I didn't want to write another musical about a 19th-century heroine after doing Jane Eyre. While that show has a massive story, Emma is sort of light and airy. I like to call the musical the historical version of Clueless."
Like many of Gordon's earlier works, Emma will showcase his pop music industry background, and is influenced by sonic geniuses including Stephen Sondheim and The Beatles. "You might hear a little 'Eleanor Rigby here with some Supertramp there," says Gordon, while emphasizing that audiences can also expect a chamber-music feel to the production, with piano, cello, oboe, and violin featured in the score.
The play's title references a medical term that's come into being in reference to long-term HIV survivors, who were given a reprieve from what was thought to be a certain death sentence with the advent of new drug cocktail treatments in the mid-1990s. "The issues involved were sort of unexpected," says Ward. "Some people didn't have jobs or careers to go back to, others entered into new relationships, and then of course there's survivor guilt. It's similar to survivors of the Holocaust who lost so many people around them, and then were told to just go on with their lives."
Ward, who is Jewish, is particularly interested in the role heritage plays in survival. "I wanted to look at the commonalities between people of different generations, which helps with resilience, and gives people the strength to go on," he states. In the play, the central character, Elliott, has been HIV-positive since the early 1980s. He and his boyfriend visit with Elliott's father and brother. "Even though there's a lot of diversity in their relations with each other and their opinions, what I really bring out is the strength of the family," says Ward.
Additional meanings of the word, "Lazarus" are also explored. "The religious aspect gets discussed," says the playwright. "Elliott's boyfriend is a goy, and somehow they start talking about the Lazarus story. Also, Lazarus is the last name of Emma Lazarus, who wrote the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. The whole idea of immigration is a strong theme within the play, and Elliott's grandfather, who came to America from the old country, is a strong, unseen presence."
Words do not suffice to explain Chicago's Neo-Futurists' latest production, The Fool (Returns to His Chair); after all, it's a highly physical performance piece incorporating comedy and music, with almost no text. "We wanted to face the challenge of presenting a visual and musical piece without spoken word that is highly entertaining yet provides emotional weight and historical context," says the show's creator, John Pierson.
The show presents a history of fools, but don't expect a certain character from King Lear. "Every image and story in the play is taken from history, religion, or mythology. We are deliberately staying away from theatrical fools [...] and focusing instead on literary, iconic, and societal fools through the ages," says Pierson. And how do the Muppets play into this play? "We're using books like Grover's The Monster at the End of this Book to represent the realization that we are our own monster," Pierson explains.
Long before rehearsals began, the cast was asked to do extensive research on the fools they had selected. For most, that meant plenty of reading, but not for Ryan Walters, who selected the trickster gods. "He got to watch a bunch of cartoons." As a result, he will be incorporating cartoon-inspired chases with fake cliffs, bombs, and the like. "His performance is based primarily on his hysterical ability to fail at tasks he sets for himself," says Pierson.
For those familiar with the goings-on at the Neo-Futurarium, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Walters' antics aren't the only unusual part of this show. For example, 300 milk crates will be used throughout the production, for everything from costumes to set pieces to obstacles. "Be ready for anything," Pierson cautions. "There are going to be lots of surprises."