All Over the Map
Dangerous in San Francisco, Men of Tortuga in Chicago, and Around the World in Eighty Days in Cape Cod.
"It's such a deliciously wicked show," says director Clay David. "It digs into the dark side of San Francisco gay life while staying faithful to the original novel." In Dangerous, Marcus seeks to humiliate his cheating boyfriend by getting his friend Alexander Valmont to have sex with his boyfriend's paramour, a young gym trainer named Jason. Added into the mix is Trevor, a soon-to-be ordained priest who has caught Alexander's eye. According to David, "The plot is about sex; the story is about love."
In addition to the play's focus on gay characters, Smith has updated the original story in other ways. "We now live in an age of technology, where public humiliation is as easy as breathing," says David. "Cell phones, spy cams, web links, and e-mails are used to move the play forward and communicate the savage play-by-play between Alexander and Marcus."
The NCTC production opened on August 12 and has been drawing enthusiastic responses. "The actors are already receiving 'calling cards' from gentlemen in the audience, discreetly placed on the Scrabble game board on the set of the play," David reports. "The cast is beautiful to behold, yet the audiences extol how the ensemble is not just eye candy but a collection of incredibly interesting and skillful actors." David has worked with NCTC twice before and has nothing but praise for the company, saying: "Ed [Decker] and the staff at NCTC shepherd new writers and give them voice. That is the nectar of the gods."
The action of Tortuga takes place in an "undisclosed location" where a shadowy cabal is plotting the assassination of a political enemy. If you're thinking that this sounds like a modern political drama, you're half-right. "We never find out who the enemy is, what the meeting is that they're talking about, or exactly what they hope to gain from all of this," the playwright says. The deliberate abstraction of the plot has led to a variety of interpretations from the audience. "I'm surprised by how many people decided that these were 'good guys,' as opposed to others who decided that they were villains," Wells admits. He adds that the play "came out of my personal frustration with what I think is an atmosphere of secrecy, opacity, cynicism, and self-interest that's creeped into public life in the last few years." (One critic, in his rave review of Men of Tortuga for the Chicago Tribune, wrote that he had spotted allusions to Enron and Karl Rove.)
The title of the play refers to a famous 17th-century island of pirates. Says Wells, "That was the image I started with -- that these are pirates seeking plunder." In fact, he originally called the play Men of Madagascar after another land of buccaneers, but Steppenwolf advised him to change it because other plays have that country's name in their titles. Men of Tortuga has changed significantly at the behest of the company and under the direction of longtime member Amy Morton. "It's been an incredible learning experience for me," Wells remarks.
The production is part of Steppenwolf's "First Look" series, playing in repertory with Melanie Marnich's The Sparrow Project and Joel Drake's A Blameless Life. Wells is enthusiastic about both of his colleagues' works but, as far as the local press is concerned, his own play is the undisputed hit of the series. (The Tribune critic bluntly stated that "It blows its companion pieces out of the garage.") His success could serve as motivation for other budding playwrights.
With these minimal props at his disposal, the director tells the story of a British gent who wagers a great deal of money that he can circumnavigate the world in a balloon; his adventures take him to Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Yokohama, and across America. Treyz quips that he employed the aforementioned table and chairs "in more ways than they were probably meant to be used." The production has toured since its premiere, and the script has changed somewhat: Brown added some scenes and developed the relationship between protagonist Phileas Fogg and Aouda, a woman who is about to be sacrificed in the jungle. "It's actually much more faithful to the book than either of the movies were," Treyz insists. While the action is still set in the 19th century, the play's humor includes references to everything from the theater company Shakespeare Unplugged to the comedy routines of the Marx Brothers.
In this full production, Treyz has more resources to work with than when he first imagined the play, but the performance style is still Spartan. For instance, nobody had to call the Ringling Brothers to pull in a favor for the scene in which the characters encounter an elephant; instead, the actors indicate riding a mighty beast with the help of nothing more than a bass drum. "I like my actors to be working and happy, so this is perfect for me," says Russ. "Everyone's onstage all the time, or nearly, and they can develop a really tight ensemble."
The only performer who plays one single character is Matthew Arkin (Fogg). As described by Treyz, Fogg is "all mathematics and numbers at the beginning of the play, but in his journey he learns that there's much more to the world than being precise and being English." Although the director is wary about giving details, he mentions that there has been some interest in further productions. Eventually, the show may turn out to be as well-traveled as its main character.