Sundry Moldy Solecisms #5 The Drown’ed Book by Mahonri Stewart, (play review)

A few weeks ago our son told us one of his co-workers was performing in Annie at the American Fork amphitheater. The night we went there was some light rain making a beautiful pattern in the spotlights. At the end of the play Annie’s optimism inspires President Roosevelt’s cabinet to come up with ideas that will pull America out of the great depression, including the Works Progress Administration, which put men across the country to work doing things like building stone amphitheaters on hillsides in small towns like American Fork and Provo. There’s a third amphitheater up Provo Canyon at BYU’s Aspen Grove campground. I believe it has a stream running between the stage and audience.

I’ve never seen a performance there, but I have performed at the Castle Amphitheater in Provo. In the mid-1970s Orson Scott Card got a $10,000 grant for his Utah Valley Repertory Theater Company and made some improvements, like replacing the crumbling stone and mortar stage with cement, which now is showing some wear.

I had a minor part in Romeo and Juliet, and remember large audiences for the plays there, so I was a bit surprised that the audience for Mahonri Stewart’s new play, The Drown’ed Book, or, the History of William Shakespeare, Part Last was fairly small.  The Castle could easily hold an audience 20 times as great, the kind of audience the play deserves. (Parking is another matter, but the Seven Peaks parking lot is a short walk away.)

Playgoers will recognize echoes of situations from Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with Thomas Quiney (Sam Schofield)’s funny mocking soliloquy against Stratford’s wealthiest citizen, apparently inspired by his father’s having had to beg a loan from Shakespeare. His anger and vituperation seem as out of proportion to the humiliation as Iago’s rage at being passed over for a promotion.

The rage colors his courtship of Shakespeare’s daughter Judith (Zel Bromley), who has her own rage against her father for being absent when her twin Hamnet died. “That was really his name?” my son asked. “I thought he said ‘Hamlet’ the first time.”

Hamnet is not haunted by a ghost, though–he is a ghost (Hyrum Stewart, the playwright’s son playing the playwright’s son). He has a single line, repeated throughout the play, “Joy,” and it contrasts with the sorrow the characters feel, especially when he tries to comfort Judith.

Thomas and Judith’s courtship proceeds, as you would expect, like Katherine and Petruchio’s from Taming of the Shrew, but as the play progresses he begins to feel more like Bertram from All’s Well That End’s Well. (Words Anne Hathaway (Shawnda Moss) says at the end of the play.)

The costs to the family of William  (Bradley Moss) being absent for so much of his family’s life ripple throughout the play. Anne’s statement “Come home, William” brought to mind a visual image of the same line in Tim Slover’s March Tale. (Tim played Romeo in Card’s aforementioned production.) I hear the line as a homage to March Tale, which takes place at the other end of Shakespeare’s career, the beginning.

But if March Tale is about a young playwright beginning to come into his own, The Drown’ed Book is about the costs of that art. Bradley Moss flubbed a few lines and I found myself wondering if that wasn’t deliberate, part of the poignance of William’s words being inadequate to solve the problems and salve the sorrows of his family life when it mirrors situations he was able to resolve in his plays.

The play begins with William borrowing a device from Much Ado About Nothing to nudge his daughter Susannah (Belinda Purdum) and her suitor John Hall (Peter F. Christensen) toward the altar, but as the tension in the family builds, Anne says to him, “No more poetry!”

The wit and eloquence Shakespeare used to shape his plays and the world they shaped fail William’s family as they wonder what characters they represent to their father. Am I Goneril or Regan, Judith asks at one point.

At the end of the play William presents his wife and daughters with newly written  plays, telling them he has been working in a new form that mixes comedy and tragedy, and The Drown’ed Book does as well.

I  chatted with Mahonri during the intermission, mentioning an essay where Robert Graves said that when he was writing A Wife For Mr. Milton he only used words that had been in the language at that time. Mahonri laughed and described his own stack of books and online dictionaries to accomplish the same feat.

The result is a delightful play with an ensemble that works well together. My son, who played Leonato in a high school production of Much Ado About Nothing–and who greatly enjoyed catching Hero as she fainted each night, thought it was a little slow, even boring at times, but was gratified to hear Dogberry’s comment about his piece of flesh echoed in the play. So there’s even something for the groundlings–along with a great view of Provo at night, and even heated seats.

Joy and enjoy.

Tickets for the Sept. 1-2 performances are still available

Mahonri Stewart on the Zion Theatre Company Kickstarter

An interview with Mahonri Stewart on the Kickstarter to fund Zion Theatre Company’s 2014 season.

Prometheus Unbound promotional posterZion Theatre Company is running a Kickstarter to fund its 2014 season. Mahonri Stewart agreed to do a Q&A with me about it and what’s going on with ZTC.

What made you decide to use Kickstarter specifically for the 2014 season of Zion Theatre Company? And why fund a whole season rather than, say, just an individual play?

I had a definite, focused plan in mind for what I wanted Zion Theatre Company to do in 2014, but the past couple of years we had cut it close on some of our plays–some of our plays did exceptionally well, some barely paid the costs, and some lost money. It all balanced out pretty well, at times it strained our accounts, which was discouraging since it’s been with the last few shows that we’ve seen our most enthusiastic audiences, a plethora of extremely positive reviews, and realistic hope for future success. Melissa Leilani Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and my Farewell to Eden were especially impactful on audiences and critics and I think those shows did an excellent job in setting up expectations and enthusiasm for our future productions by showing exactly what kind of potential we actually have as a company.

So by trying to gain funds that would help us fund the entire season, instead of just going with money from play to play as we have, it takes off the nervous edge that if one show doesn’t do as well as the last one, then it doesn’t threaten to put the kabosh on the rest of our plans for the season. Having that nest egg allows us to focus on the quality of the current show instead of wondering if we spend our money on, you know, a good set, that we may not have enough money for the next show.  It was a nervous place to be and we almost closed up shop after a couple of our shows didn’t do as well as some others in our season. So this long game tactic gives us an opportunity to focus on making the best show possible in the present, without worrying about the future. It gives us the security to up our quality.

Tell us about the programming: why those four plays? I’d be especially be interested in hearing just a bit more about the two new ones.

I would love to!

We’re doing two of my new shows, and two from other well known playwrights (one a classic, one a premiere). The two from other Utah-based playwrights are as follows: Continue reading “Mahonri Stewart on the Zion Theatre Company Kickstarter”

Press Release: ZTC Presents Melissa Leilani Larson’s Adaptation of Jane Austen’s_Persuasion_

Classic litePersuasion Production photo #1rature and theater lovers can have something to look forward to this month as Zion Theatre Company is performing Jane Austen’s Persuasion, adapted by award winning playwright Melissa Leilani Larson. The show performs in Salt Lake City at the Off Broadway Theater on  Sept. 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, and 22 at 7:30 pm.

Jane Austen has had enduring popularity and resonance, despite the couple of centuries that have passed since her debut as a novelist. The director of Persuasion, Sarah Stewart, is one of the many who have been passionate fans of Austen, so she brings a personal investment to the production, “ My introduction to Jane Austen happened at the ripe old age of nine when I stumbled across the 1940’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice on late night television.  I was completely captivated and never forgot it.  I didn’t realize it was a book until I received it three years later as a Christmas present. Once again, I had the peculiar delight of being swept into Jane’s world, and thus began my life-long passion for all things Jane Austen.  I consider her a dear friend—just one I haven’t actually met.” Continue reading “Press Release: ZTC Presents Melissa Leilani Larson’s Adaptation of Jane Austen’s_Persuasion_”