All Over the Map
The Ugly American in Berkeley, Band Geeks: A Half Time Musical in Chicago, and Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls in Jersey City.
The Ugly American, which opens July 24, tells the story of Daisey's adventures as a 19-year-old acting student studying abroad in the city of Gielgud and Olivier. "We were taught very clearly that we as Americans should look but not touch because it's really inconceivable that we'll ever amount to anything," Daisey recalls, "but it's very good that we had come over to see what 'real' acting's all about." Growing disenchanted with the program, he gets involved with a fringe theater troupe, where he's cast in Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom because the company believes his American accent has "exciting geopolitical implications."
Everyone in the company lives and performs in an abandoned church south of the Thames, and most of them are "on the dole" (the British system of welfare) -- except for one actress that our hero starts dating. She has a job, the nature of which creates the drama for the second half of Daisey's show. He remarks, "We weave between the world where by day I'm learning all of the rules of acting, and then going to have this relationship where sex and violence are intertwined and there's this dark core that nobody can speak about."
Although many people might say that the title of Daisey's latest endeavor is especially striking during an age of rising anti-Americanism, the writer/performer believes that the image of "the ugly American" hits home regardless of the political climate: "There will always be this connotation that Americans are ugly because of some things I actually think are admirable about Americans." He points out that our "brashness" and our ability "to say what [we] actually think" are sometimes the very things that cause us to be labeled that way. Even though he's been a lifelong liberal -- one reviewer described him as a mix between Noam Chomsky and Jack Black -- he felt obligated to defend certain American policies time and again during his stay abroad.
Immediately after The Ugly American closes, Daisey will preview his show Monopoly! for one performance at the same theater. That play touches on a number of topics, including the war between Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison over the standards of electricity, the ever-expanding WalMart in his hometown in Maine, the anti-trust case against Microsoft, and the secret history of the popular board game. He mentions, "I have to say, even if you know where it comes from and why and how, it's still fun to try to bankrupt everyone else around the table."
There's a risk involved in Daisey's line of work. "I used to worry that I'd self-inflict drama, which I think is the danger for any monologuist. You can ruin your life pretty well." After working on his All Stories Are Fiction series at New York's P.S. 122, where he improvised monologues based on notes he composed 45 minutes before the show, he realized that his stories don't need to have a grand (and usually self-destructive) scope in order to resonate. He notes, "It's really clear to me that there's more stories out there than I'll ever actually have time to tell."
Currently playing late nights at the Live Bait Theater in Chicago, Band Geeks is set in 1989 in the town of Elyria, Ohio. The musical follows drum major Joey Cranford as he attempts to save funding for the arts at his high school by leading the school's marching band in a triumphant display at a Cleveland Browns game. "Plot-wise, it's based on an amalgamation of movies from the '80s," says Eninger. "The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Revenge of the Nerds -- pretty much any movie where the underdog overcomes."
The book is written by Becky Eldridge and Amy Petersen, who have been best friends since grade school and actually came from the town of Elyria. "All the characters are thinly veiled people who actually exist," says Eninger. "In some cases, Becky and Amy didn't even veil them; they just went ahead and used their real names."
Eninger first met the writing duo when all three were students at Miami University, and part of the same improv troupe. Their first Chicago collaboration was Little House on the Parody, written by Eldridge and Petersen, featuring, music, lyrics, and direction by Eninger. That show -- which takes its cue from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the popular '80s TV show Little House on the Prairie -- was a hit, and will be seen later this summer at the New York International Fringe Festival.
Single Box Turn Productions was born out of that initial effort, and Band Geeks marks the company's sophomore production. The show features several original songs by Eninger, in addition to marching band versions of popular '80s hits like "Eye of the Tiger" and "Come on, Eileen." According to Eninger, "we also wrote an original marching number that describes the mechanics of marching. That was our way of filling in audiences not associated with marching bands on some of the techniques and elements of it."
Eninger admits that he was a band geek in high school and so he understands well both the passion and humor of the situation. "[Marching band members] go through weeks of learning patterns on grass for the sheer joy of doing it," he says. "I mean, basically you're expending all this effort to put up a show that's said to be the pee break in the middle of a football game."
How does a young theater company get the exclusive rights for the commercial premiere of an established playwright's latest work? Persistence helps, in the form of constant communication with the author's agent. It also doesn't hurt if your theater has an address outside of Manhattan, which many playwrights view as a safeguard against potentially hazardous reviews. That's how Management Co. was able to get Naomi Iizuka to trust them with her 1999 play Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls. "Since we were producing in Jersey City, she was more accommodating [than had we performed in Manhattan]," says co-producer and actress Marguerite French. "I think that really appealed to her -- that we really respect her work and want to do it the best way we know how."
Born in Tokyo, Iizuka is known for writing quirky, mythic plays like 36 Views and War of the Worlds (with Anne Bogart), and her latest bears all of the marks of her unique style. Aloha's a time-traveling story of a group of people who "find themselves" in the most remarkable ways. As French describes, "It's about becoming who you are, and whatever route you need to get there, whether it's turning into a lizard or turning from a dog into a human." One of the characters can't deal with life's pressures, so he morphs into a komodo dragon so that his highest priorities become finding shade and eating leafy greens. Another character comes to believe that she was an Incan mummy in a previous life, which leads to an equally striking image onstage.
One would imagine that these transformations would be difficult to pull off in live theater, but French insists that the play does the job for the company. "It's actually done mostly through character work," she says. "[Iizuka's] writing style is so poetic and uses so much symbolism that we as actors were able to use her heightened language." While it's not written in verse, the prose is so precise, according to French, that the entire play appears to be a poem.
Management Co.'s inaugural production was an adaptation of Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, which performed at the UnConvention, a theater festival responding to the Republican National Convention, last year in New York City. The decision to move the company to Jersey City came after executive director Amy Patrice Golden, who lives there, met with the artistic director of Victory Hall. The partnership that followed led the company to be able to secure a regular venue. Says French, "It just really feels like a home, a place where we can build a great theater."