Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Journey Across 4000 Miles

 By Jiayun Zhiang

Social psychologist Edward T. Hall has suggested four types of spatial distance between individuals. The first, intimate distance, ranges from actual contact to about 18 inches. The second, personal distance, ranges from 1.5 feet to 4 feet. The third, social distance, spans about 4 to 12 feet; and the last, public space, extends beyond 12 feet. As social animals, it seems that humans may protect our boundaries playfully or gently––sometimes less so––and at other times must overcome distances that may be physical, psychological, or emotional.

Playwright Amy Herzog.
Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, begins with a significant physical distance: the 4000 miles of a cross-continental bicycle trek from Seattle to New York. But there is also emotional separation between 21-year-old Leo, in his self-absorbed grief, and Vera, his 91-year-old grandmother, who although tiny and frail is fiercely independent and vivacious. At the heart of this beautifully rendered and subtly orchestrated piece, the characters face the aches and pains of growing up and growing old. They struggle with death, guilt, physical limits, and emotional frustrations as they slowly mend rifts between families, friends, and lovers. 
“I did feel very strongly about writing an older character with the dimensions that I observed in my grandmother, because I think there’s a way that older people can just disappear. I feel my own grandmother’s fight to remain present and relevant in a very pronounced way.”—Amy Herzog 
Herzog's grandmother, Leepee Joseph at the Occupy Wall Street protest.
 Herzog, a Yale School of Drama graduate, often fleshes out family stories in her work. For example,
her play After the Revolution (2010) followed her discovery of the 1950s targeting and blacklisting of her father’s stepfather, Julius Joseph, who had passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II. The play recounts the painful reconciliation undertaken by law school grad and activist Emma Joseph between her politics and family legacy after she learns that the grandfather for whom she named her legal defense fund was not who she had believed him to be. Herzog’s grandmother Leepee Joseph, a long-time left-wing activist and the model for Vera in 4000 Miles, did not completely agree with this portrayal of her husband. “I thought what my husband had done was perfectly legitimate,” she commented. “My grandmother would say her politics didn’t go into me,” Herzog said in an interview with Alexis Soloski from The New York Times, “but the fact that I come from a very political family is very influential for me.” Interestingly, Ms. Joseph, who was also present Soloski’s interview, responded that: “Oh, no question about that. But I didn’t see any politics in 4000 Miles.”
“I’ve always been interested in not just the politics, but the trappings of being a deeper political person … The word I’ve used before is ‘scaffolding.’ The kind of scaffolding people build for themselves in terms of their own belief systems is a subject of enduring interest to me.”—Amy Herzog
Herzog returns to family stories in 4000 Miles, this time by pairing a “transcendentalist, hippie” cousin and the “very New York, older person’s existence” of their common grandmother. This seemingly unlikely intergenerational connection sets the play in motion, and Herzog’s merging of the personal and the political further animates the backstory. Grandmother Vera, a widowed Lefty, despite her solitary life, is proud to be progressive and always creates a sense of community. Her college-dropout grandson, Leo, arrives unannounced at her Greenwich Village apartment, distressed after witnessing his best friend’s death in a bike accident. At her advanced age, Vera has much experience coping with her own losses; when she fully opens up to Leo, he is able to realize that the grieving process need not be borne alone. What started out as an overnight stay lasts for a month during which these two characters, equally sensitive and dignified despite their differences, share laughs, memories, and feelings that cross the boundaries of generations. Herzog’s own bicycle ride from New Haven to San Francisco on a Habitat for Humanity fundraiser after completing her undergraduate degree at Yale in 2000 added another layer of inspiration to the writing of this play. Herzog also spent 6 months living with Leepee Joseph in her Greenwich Village apartment, where together they transformed their relationship.
“I have a cousin who lives a kind of transcendentalist, hippie kind of life. And he lost a friend about two summers ago, actually in a rafting accident. I really adore this cousin, and I was thinking about this experience that he was going through — of being so young and suffering such a major loss. And I was also interested in just the way he’s chosen to live his life kind of outside the mainstream. My grandmother has this very New York, older person’s existence that I’m also really interested in. We’re very close. So starting with those two characters I invented this play, which was not at all based on any events or anything like that, but it was inspired by those two people.”—Amy Herzog
Herzog with her grandmother and inspiration for the character "Vera." 
Herzog's skillful technique and nuanced style turns this character-driven piece from drama into a poem in dramatic form. As such it graces the audience with swift confrontations tinged with the gentle flow of everyday life’s trivial matters, and poignant revelations punctuated by awkward pauses and humorous ambiguities. She approaches her characters with great attention to detail, yet this simplicity clearly conveys underlying complexities.

Although a resolution is not in sight toward the end of this 4000-mile trek, director Desdemona Chiang encourages audience members to call their grandparents or grandchildren right after the production, because, if I may add, 4000 Miles is that kind of stage where we could find intimacy to be rewarding and revealing, and compassion could be used to measure spatial distance in all human relationships.

PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog.

April 1-19th. Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Click here or call 919-962-7529 for tickets and more information.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Desdemona Chiang on bridging generational gaps in 4000 Miles

Director, Desdemona Chiang.
At first, Leo and Vera seem to be an unlikely pair. Leo is 21-years-old, while Vera stands at 91 years young. Leo enjoys riding his bike cross-country, while Vera calls her neighbor daily to assure her she's still alive. Vera, played by Dee Maaske, is Leo's grandmother, but much time has passed since they last saw one another. After a heart-shattering loss, Leo, played by Schuyler Scott Mastain, shows up at Vera's door. His original plan to stay for one night turns into three weeks and a once improbable duo end up finding solace in one another.

Director, Desdemona Chiang, said she wanted to direct 4000 Miles because she loves plays that "explore family dynamics and human relationships." She definitely got what she bargained for with Leo and Vera. With two distinct characters lacking similarity at first, Desdemona wants the emphasis of the play to be placed on the fully developed relationship between Vera and Leo. She says it is the intricate moments between them that make 4000 Miles "both ordinary and utterly exceptional."
"It is a sweet, funny, and poignant story of two people who, as a result of an unexpected tragedy, find themselves connected and changed forever. "
Desdemona wants to ensure that the audience doesn't see Vera for her age, but for her vigor. She appreciates 4000 Miles for placing a character of Vera's age in a prominent role. Desdemona explains, "Americans are notoriously ageist—we usually regard the elderly as a social inconvenience and the discussion of death and dying to be uncomfortable, so oftentimes this particular demographic of people goes socially unacknowledged and ignored. It’s so satisfying to be working on a play that puts a 91 year-old woman at the center of the story." She said Vera reminds her of her own feisty, sharp, unapologetic grandmother.

Costume designs, by Jan Chambers, will be contemporary and will provide further insight into the
contrasts between Leo and Vera. As a twenty-something "neo-hippie," Leo will be dressed in either casual jeans and sweatshirts, or bicyclist attire. Vera will be dressed in flowing, comfortable pieces to reflect the routine she has fallen into.

Commerce Street in the West Village.
The play is set in Vera's apartment in Manhattan's West Village. Desdemona explains that she and scenic designer, Jan Chambers, sought to create an environment that told the story of Vera's everyday life before Leo showed up on her doorstep. She explains, "The placement of furniture, books, dishes,and other household items are very deliberate, and speak volumes about the kinds of life patterns she has developed over the years, and how that pattern gets disrupted (in both good and bad ways) when Leo arrives."

The mood onstage will be set by lighting designer, Xavier Pierce. Desdemona said they will utilize the lighting to "establish rhythms and the storytelling inside transitions in between scenes." Desk and floor lamps will contribute to the sense of intimacy between the characters.

4000 Miles has been challenging at times for Desdemona because she wants to maintain the beautiful simplicity of the relationship between Leo and Vera . She explained that in our current theatrical world, it can be tempting to create the "the bright flashy thing, the big social statement, or the jazz hands dance number," but that in 4000 Miles, the nuanced, fully-developed relationship matters most.
"This is play that doesn’t set out to change the world, yet the worlds of these two individuals are irrevocably changed."
What's Desdemona's goal? She said, "My hope is that by the end of the show, audience members will be gathered in the lobby calling their grandmothers or their grandchildren."

We invite you to experience the refreshingly honest, 4000 Miles, onstage April 1-19!

Click here for more info or call our box office at 919.962.PLAY (7529).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

All's Fair in Love and War

By Karen O'Brien
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
—Lord Alfred Tennyson
Throughout the centuries the likenesses of love and war have proved intriguing. In literature, the idea that love and war belong to a distinctive sphere beyond regular rules of fairness is first attributed to poet John Lyly in his novel Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1579), which forthrightly states: "The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war." A quarter century later, Miguel de Cervantes famously compares the laws of love and war in Don Quixote (1604): "Love and War are the same thing, and stratagems and polity are as allowable in the one as in the other." It was in Francis Edward Smedley's novel Frank Fairleigh (1850) that the now famous maxim originally appeared: "All is fair in love and war." Today we are still fascinated by stories about the glories of love and war, particularly when the two are intermingled.

Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding takes us on a poetic journey in which we are led through the intimate terrain of haunted memories that traverse majestic prairie fields, setting the scene for romantic love, and the battle-weary fields of the Great War (1914-1918). We follow young Mary Chambers and Charlie Edwards from their first meeting during a thunderstorm on the Saskatchewan prairie to Charlie's travels across the Atlantic to patriotically join Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) regiment of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade in England, where he experiences trench life in war-ravaged France. The non-linear structure of Mary's Wedding enables us to theatrically experience simultaneous locations and recurring dreamscapes, which fuse these weighty themes of love and war. The structural and thematic fluidity also imaginatively parallels the fluctuating states of mind of Mary and Charlie as they realize the fragility of love during turbulent times.
Canola Fields south of Leader Saskatchewan
First World War: French lancers preparing to chase German retreat. Their cavalry lance is the same as that used in the 18th and 19th centuries. WWI marked the end of cavalry combat roles.
Karen emphasizes the juxtaposition of the prairie field and battlefield images to symbolize love and war.
In Mary's Wedding, Mary and Charlie quote passages from the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), whose Romantic style from the Victorian era inspires them. These allusions add to the poetic features of the play give insight into the characters' thoughts and feelings. Mary's allusion to Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" (1833, rev. 1842) mirrors her own views regarding the complications of her war-torn love affair. Charlie alludes to "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1870), concerning the heroic but futile charge during the Battle of Balaklava (October 1854) in which two thirds of the nearly 670 men were wounded and killed to gain territory in a Russian position during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Charlie's use of this poem reveals his feelings as he recounts the frightful Battle of Moreuil Wood in which his sergeant successfully leads the patriotic charge brandishing a mere saber against German soldiers armed with rifles and machine guns. Sergeant Flowers is based on Lieutenant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew (1885-1918), who won the Victoria Cross for his valiant advance that led to the German retreat. Flowers' cavalry charge is the last in recorded military history, and the subsequent apprehension of Moreuil Wood was a milestone in the Great War. To this day, a commemoration is held annually in honor of those who fell during this battle, and plans are in progress for the centenary celebration of Moreuil Wood in 2018. Over 400,000 Canadians served overseas in the Canadian Army during World War I.

In 1915, Major John McCrae (pictured) witnessed red poppies blowing in the breeze over freshly dug graves and was inspired to write "In Flanders Fields," one of the greatest war poems ever written. In doing so, he forever made the red poppy a symbol of remembrance and honor for our war dead.
No battle is ever won, he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
—William Faulkner
Mary's Wedding adds to UNC's yearlong academic conversation on the Great War centenary. Through the lens of the relentless terror and suffering of trench warfare, we come to better understand not only concepts of glory and honor but also the stakes of romanticizing them. The cast and artistic team of this production collaborated to create an inventive landscape in which dream, memory and history intertwine, delivering an inspired space to engage our imaginations in this theatrical force of love and war. The production offers an opportunity to experience on many levels—thematically, theatrically, and emotionally—the recurring dreams both of dark and devastating losses and of the great capacity of the human compassion that reverberates throughout our war-scarred histories. As we traverse the haunted memories of those who served and those who were left behind, we have the opportunity to reconsider what is fair in love and war. It is, after all, our voices that will determine the memories and histories of those taking part in our shared future.

Mary's Wedding is onstage the PRC2 stage April 29-May 3.

Click here for more info or call our box office at 919.962.PLAY (7529).

Friday, March 6, 2015

Patrick Holt's Brilliant Renderings and Costume Concepts Come to Life

Patrick Holt is renowned for his stunning, detailed costume renderings, as pictured below. His costume designs for An Enemy of the People encapsulate the 1950s era of fedoras, tailored suits, and feminine, pastel skirts. Limited to the subdued colors worn by business men of the 1950s, Patrick's palette was more muted, but one character needed to stand out.

Patrick's inspiration behind Peter Stockmann's flair, as worn by Anthony Newfield. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Peter Stockmann, the Mayor, needed to exude a certain importance, explains Rachel Pollock, costume craftsperson. She said the design team received an email from director Tom Quaintance stating, "The Mayor's hat needs to clearly be the Mayor's hat." She and Patrick jumped into action, finding exactly the right details to complete Peter's ensemble. They searched for a way to ensure Peter would stand out, but it had to be subtle. "We needed some way to set it apart him an official capacity that wouldn't be cartoonish or absurd," said Rachel. Patrick and Rachel chose from a collection of unique feather ornaments to make Peter's costume flourish. This subtle detail proves effective, along with the touch of red, to evoke a sense of authority, wealth, and importance in Peter Stockmann's character.

The concept of water is prevalent throughout the plot, as well as the design concepts. The designs for dresses worn in the second act by Petra and Catherine Stockmann use teals and dim browns evoking the polluted springs that drive the plot, Rachel explained.
"It's a visual representation of the taint in the water."
With water being a common theme throughout the play, it's no wonder Patrick was inspired to create visual representations of the contaminated spring in his designs for the Stockmann women.
Patrick's rendering for Catherine Stockmann as worn by Julia Gibson. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
Patrick's rendering for Petra Stockmann as worn by Allison Altman. Photo by Curtis Brown.
For the angry mob scene in which Dr. Stockmann is pelted with water, precautions had to be taken. Rachel says they spent time Scotch Guarding the costumes they expected to be exposed to the most moisture. However, this was not Rachel's first time working around water in a production. After the 4,500 gallon pool used in PlayMakers' 2014 production of Metamorphoses, she had more than enough skill and experience to collaborate on the challenge of costumes getting soaked throughout the show.

The mob throwing water at the face of Dr. Stockmann. Photo by Jon Gardiner.


We are pleased to have Patrick Holt's costume designs featured in another production at PlayMakers. He served as costume craftsperson for PlayMakers early on in his career. Rachel said Patrick's past experience with PlayMakers simplified the process for the collaborative costume team. "He ran this dye shop. So he is very familiar with this facility and what it can do."

Patrick's rendering of Dr. Stockmann's costume worn by Michael Bryan French. Photo by Curtis Brown.

See Patrick Holt's beautiful renderings come to life onstage. Book your tickets for An Enemy of the People - onstage through March 15!

Click here to buy tickets or for more info or call our box office at 919.962.7529.