All Over the Map
Blind Mouth Singing in Chicago, The Pillowman in New Brunswick, and Jesus' Kid Brother in Long Beach.
Depicting the bottom of a well is a challenge for any theater, but Chicago's Teatro Vista has commissioned director Loy Arcenas, who is also one of American theater's top set designers, to helm the production. Although he's leaving the designing to Brian Sidney Bembridge, Arcenas' extensive experience has helped him to handle a script that also calls for a hurricane to sweep through the town, along with piles of dead dogs and mangled birds.
"I don't think if you really see the production, that it's strictly an imagistic play," says Arcenas. "It's a beautiful story of people who cannot take their fate. Whichever way they go, they will always be trapped in their choices." Although he has worked with the playwright before on Shoplifting Oxygen, this is the first time Arcenas has worked with Teatro Vista, and the experience has instilled in him a newfound respect for the Chicago theater scene. "Even when you get past the Steppenwolf, the Victory Gardens, and the Goodman, the smaller companies are also very well attended," he says.
Martin McDonough's The Pillowman, which was a major success last season on Broadway, is now heading across the river to the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. While director Will Frears loved that production, he is not letting all its awards intimidate him. "You can't pretend this previous, very impressive version didn't exist," he states, "but you'd go insane if you kept trying to top it or match up with it."
The play centers on a writer named Katurian who lives in a totalitarian state, and is arrested for his possible part in the murder and torture of some local children -- who met the same gruesome fate as the characters in his stories. So what does director Frears expect audiences to walk away from the show with? "Nausea," he deadpanned. Indeed, Frears says this production will also be different than the Broadway one since George Street has a partial thrust stage, which puts the closest audience members mere feet away from the action, and the sightlines also render it more difficult to disguise the stage effects.
While some major critics blasted the play's seeming lack of social commentary, Frears responds by pointing out that the play's ultimate message is "that the first duty of the storyteller is to tell a story." He agrees that other plays by McDonagh, of whom he is a great admirer, address social issues, but he thinks this one is a different story. "It isn't about social responsibility," he says.
Frears adds that casting the show was a very different experience for him -- especially auditioning the child actors (who act out the stories that Katurian tells). "They were asked to recite a monologue and tell a joke, and we had all of these teenage boys and girls coming in telling the foulest jokes," Frears recalls, adding that one of the knee-slappers that an 11-year-old girl told was so unspeakable that he could not even bring himself to repeat it. "There were lots of jokes about dead babies and Jewish mothers."
The show follows the adventures of Larry, and particularly his relationships with his father Joseph, his best friend Barabbus (yes, that Barabbus), and his love interest Mary Pilate (daughter of Pontius Pilate). Obviously, the Karmelichs take a few liberties with the New Testament stories. "Both of us went to Catholic school and were altar boys," says Mark. "We wanted to make the material funny and somewhat irreverent, but were careful not to make the finished product too offensive. It's a thin line, but we've had both pastors and rabbis who've seen it and thought it was great."
The Karmelichs are also members of the rock band Sauce, and developed parts of Jesus' Kid Brother by playing songs from it at their club gigs. While the band does not perform any covers, Mark says that both he and Brian were influenced by bands like The Who and The Kinks that did a lot of storytelling through their songs. "The show's like a rock opera," Mark says, "but there's also a country hoe-down and even a polka."
So how much of the Karmelichs' own relationship has wound up in the musical? "Certainly, when you're writing a show about brothers and you are brothers, there's something to that," says Mark. "But I wouldn't say either of have an inferiority complex. I'm the third and Brian's the fourth out of four brothers in our family. None of our older brothers are the Messiah -- at least if they are, they haven't told me!"