All Over the Map
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour in Dayton, The Queen of the Remote Control in Minneapolis, and Glittra's Mission in Seattle
While it's a risky venture financially, the undertaking may well turn out to be an artistic slam-dunk; Tom Stoppard stands among our greatest living dramatists, and this rarely produced play is one of his most fascinating. Reportedly inspired by his meeting with former Soviet dissident Viktor Fainberg, it tells the story of two men named Alexander Ivanov who find themselves sharing a cell in a mental institution. One Alexander is a madman who imagines himself the conductor of an invisible orchestra, while the other is a political dissident imprisoned for slandering the Soviet government. The latter's rebellious son Sacha tries to figure out why the regime in power has taken away his father.
Hanna and Gittleman both discovered the play in college through a recording of the original production that starred Ian McKellen, John Wood, and Patrick Stewart. "We listened to it on one of those cold winter nights when there's too much snow and you listen to weird things on the stereo," Hanna recalls. "We were intrigued by the way the language weaves into the story." Since they both loved the play and were aware of its challenges, they began planning for rehearsals about a year ago. Apart from the sheer size of the cast, the two have had to wrestle with restrictions set by both Actors' Equity Association and the musicians' union.
Hanna's research included talking to a university student who had writtern her doctoral dissertation on the Soviet practice of committing dissidents. But the play is far from being a remote period piece about a different place, time, and culture. "I found a lot of references to people with similar stories in China," Hanna remarks. "And, for our society today, the play has a lot of implications outside of the realm of full commitment to a mental institution."
As Hanna sees it, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is a powerful testament to the importance of free speech: "That's something we have in this country, and we need to relish it. [The play demonstrates] what can happen when dissenting opinions are not allowed."
The play centers on Shilpa, a second-generation Indian-American teenager. According to Kapil, "she's so disassociated from her family and so immersed in American culture that one of the things she does is watch her family as though they're on TV." As she observes her mother and father, Shilpa imagines them as part of a soap opera, an episode of Divorce Court, and a sitcom. "They don't suddenly turn into sitcom characters," Kapil explains, "but because of Shilpa's viewpoint on them, they get boxed into this television stereotype. For example, the father and mother are having a conversation about how they first met, how beautiful the mother was then, and Shilpa adds soap opera music to their dialogue because she thinks it's cheesy."
While there's a lot of comic potential in such a situation, Kapil says that the play also has its serious side: "The audience is lured into thinking they're there for just a wacky little comedy and it turns out that they see a family coming to terms with itself and letting some major secrets out of the bag." Kapil has worked with Mixed Blood for the past 10 years, primarily as an actor. She praises the company's artistic director, Jack Reuler, not only for being open to new South Asian works but for actively seeking them out. Reuler first heard about The Queen of the Remote Control after it had a reading at the Lark Theatre Company in New York City; the play has since been produced in Los Angeles and Houston prior to its Midwest premiere at Mixed Blood.
According to Kapil, theatrical works with South Asian subject matter "usually go back to The Ramayana or the retelling of other ancient Indian tales." In contrast, Bhatt's play deals with the immigrant experience and assimilation. "At the beginning, Shilpa is unaware of her family history," says Kapil. "She thinks she knows everything but she actually knows nothing. At the core of the play is this teenager's journey; she's trying to figure out who she is in a very confusing, messy world."
Linda Hartzell, current artistic director of the Seattle Children's Theatre, saw Speeltheater in Holland when the Dutch government and the Dutch Theatre Institute invited her there more than 20 years ago. She was not working with SCT at the time. "They performed a piece called Pero," she remembers, "and when I saw their work, I was taken with how innovative it was." SCT and Speeltheater have co-produced shows in Seattle for eight years, entertaining the four-and-up crowd.
While nonlinear storytelling techniques are common in many parts of Europe, it took some time to accustom American audiences to the use of avant-garde techniques to children's theater: "When I started," Hartzell says, "I think people were used to only seeing fairy tales, or they made associations with any story that Disney told; people were more familiar with the cartoon images from Disney than they were with the ink and pen sketches from the A.A. Milne books." Fortunately, Seattle Children's Theatre -- based in one of America's most dynamic theater communities -- proved to be more than adaptable. Remarks Hartzell, "I think Seattle was primed to let people try something different for kids and their families."
SCT subscribers now come to expect regular visits from the Dutch troupe, and they make their excitement known. "Months ago, before we even opened the show, we were able to add two weeks on to the run," notes Hartzell. Glittra's Mission opened last week to a warm reception, and there are plans to tour the production following its six-week run at the Seattle Center. Although SCT's reputation is as a children's theater, the company attracts audiences of all ages; many adults attend weekend performances without kids. "We're producing ageless theater," Hartzell states.
The partnership between the two companies has been mutually beneficial. One year, Speeltheater cast Billy Seago, program director of SCT's Deaf Youth Drama Program, in a role and took him back to Holland, where nobody had been performing for deaf audiences. "It opened a whole new world there," she gushes. "The ripple effect of this process is long and wide and will continue to grow."