It’s not unheard of for someone to try to put on a new play in Gainesville, an original script by a local playwright. An independent company or one of the established theaters in town will give it a try now and then, which is largely to say the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre will more than occasionally give it a try. Just within the last few seasons Dan Kahn, Darren Willis, and Chick Lipsig have all premiered plays there. (The up and coming Actors’ Warehouse is getting in the mix next season with the winner of its first play-writing contest.)
Sad to say, but that has pretty much been the end of the line. Because the way you really find out whether a new play has succeeded is when another theater company decides to produce the play again, and then another.
In fact, there is something of a road map for successful new plays in the US that usually begins at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and then moves to New York to Off-Broadway, where regional theater directors are captivated by it and then it returns with them to theaters like the Asolo and the Hippodrome. It’s also possible if you managed to mount a successful production of a new play by an independent company in Chicago, say, or San Francisco, or Atlanta – you get the picture – you might have a shot at Off-Broadway. Bottom line: If the play doesn’t get to NYC one way or another, it’s a goner. It’s one and done.
Which is not to say there’s anything stopping anybody from doing your play here or there, as recent re-mounts of plays by local playwrights have demonstrated.
The notion of a play by a local playwright getting a main stage tryout at the Gainesville Community Playhouse or the Hippodrome is fairly absurd. The Playhouse doesn’t produce new plays and nobody really asks them to. The Playhouse is a community theater, one of the oldest in the south. They put on plays for a general audience of subscribers who want plays they are somewhat familiar with. At the Hipp, they go by way of Off-Broadway to satisfy a Hipp audience that wants what’s hot in NYC, and who can blame them? If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
The box office for new plays locally has not exactly been through the roof. They play in venues with fewer than 100 seats, and they do not play to capacity, let’s just put it that way. They put on 9 to 12 performances, and they’re lucky if a thousand people see the thing. The Hippodrome seats 268 and does eight performances a week for three weeks. Do the math. It won’t work.
The Nitty Gritty Theatre Company has outfitted the Salt with 100 seats and only about 30 people per performance are showing up. You need to have it the other way around; outfit it for 30 people and have 100 show up. Still, there’s nothing wrong with an average audience of 30 or so. That’s about what you’d get at the Acrosstown or the Actors’ Warehouse. The Nitty Gritty is trying to breathe life into this space and make it a theater. They’re off to a pretty good start.
The Salt is a perfectly agreeable albeit flat space off 23rd Avenue and Sixth Street just north of downtown in Gainesville, Florida, a large storefront, sufficiently darkened at two on a sunny Saturday afternoon to make it seem like a big pub or a pool hall.
The audience doesn’t know what to expect, unless it is a night of open-mic, one of those poetry jam spoken word coffee house acoustic deals that we are so fond of here at the Center of the Universe, myself included. I’ve read more than 50 of what I call poems but are really just odd scenes in dialogue sometimes telling a story, sometimes not, at events like this. Michael Presley Bobbit’s Across the River appears at first to be one of these. And then it turns out that it is something else.
We call it the Vanya Effect, based on the way Louis Malle filmed Vanya on 42 Street, where you see the actors arriving for rehearsal from around town, then interacting as themselves, and almost imperceptibly we become aware that they are speaking Chekhov’s words and not their own, and we have entered the world of the play.
Here the audience thinks they are going to see some stand-up with the comic styling of Hawthorne’s own Tony Martone, which is a Kaufmanesque red herring.
There’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Gabriel, played by the playwright Michael Bobbit, on guitar and his buddy George (George Steven O’Brien) on keyboard, and the Salt is everything you want it to be. These guys are going to tell us a story. They take over the first table in the club and they are amiable enough that we don’t mind eavesdropping.
It gets personal right quick. These guys have been friends a long time and a lot of shit has gone down. Gabriel is on his own now, trying to be a single father to an 11 year-old boy. George has had his own tragedy, losing his five month-old baby daughter. The two men are psychologically damaged and they lean on each other. The theme here is friendship, male bonding. It’s good, and it’s troubling.
“I don’t know about letting an 11 year-old have an assault rifle.”
Something to think about.
The undead may rise up.
They are rising up.
David Mamet says that all drama is about lies. Here Gabriel tells us the secret of life is to always tell the truth. The play seems to be about Gabriel’s pursuit of love. With George he can muse philosophical and tender.
Chekhov said that if there is a gun on the mantle in act one, it should go off by act three.
Scene two takes place on the hunt with Gabriel and his son, played by the playwright’s son Liam. It is a play now about fathers and sons, and we are back to our hunter nature that we lived with for so long before we ever thought about farming. Think about it. We have been hunters forty times longer than we have been farmers. It’s in our blood. So, necessarily, this scene is about blood, and the Salt converts easily to this mode too because a boxing ring is a suitable place for blood.
Gabriel reflects on his own father and we get a glimpse of the father in memory, full of life, leaping from a bridge 100 feet over the Mississippi and shattering an eardrum and breaking an ankle.
It’s all very personal. It feels confessional, with the intimacy increased by the presence of the playwright in the central role and his son as his son, combined with the intimacy implied by any in-the-round presentation, which harkens back to the story told round the campfire, and that it is meant to be beyond therapeutic into cathartic. You can see why the other theaters in town passed on it and you can just as clearly see why they were wrong – because what Across the River proves most clearly is that we ought to see a lot more new work.
Scene Three begins with George pounding on Gabriel’s door. It is a scene of desperation. And there is a door that is locked and there is a wall between George and Gabriel, easily achieved by way of convention, just as there are opposite corners in a boxing ring. By now the Nitty-Gritty Theater Company has created a theater because a play is going on and we have accepted its conventions and we are drawn into the plotless plot because something is clearly about to happen now.
Enter the impossibly ethereal and earthly Anna Marie Kirkpatrick as Gabriel’s ex-wife Emily and she is holding a teddy bear and Vanya-like you realize that something terrible has already happened. Their son is dead. To tell you this spoils the plot no more than it did for Greek audiences who knew Oedipus just had to do what he did.
It’s a play about grief and loss and desperation and relationships and fathers and sons and regret and longing and guilt and shame, raw emotions. George is in frantic anguished desperation to save his friend, Emily in furious grief-stricken terror at unimaginable loss, with a rush you can see the transformation in space from the coffeehouse poetry jam, and if there has been little dramatic poetry heretofore, scarce iambs as in Shakespeare or Becket or Mamet, now there is poetry on stage because Anna Marie Kirkpatrick’s face is a poem.
The playwright and actor protagonist has done his play the greatest service possible in casting George Steven O’Brien and Anna Marie Kirkpatrick to portray the characters of his life-death dream because they bring it. If it’s soul-baring, this is how it’s done.
Gabriel wants to be cleansed. So did the Greeks, so did Macbeth.
Emily leaves, as ex-wives must, but George is still there, as buddies are. And they pray together, so this is where it loses me. We go to the theater to suspend our disbelief, not to adopt a new one. Fortunately it works for dramatic purposes, because George is obviously praying that Gabriel won’t kill himself and Gabriel kills himself anyway. Gabriel is praying too, but Gabriel is crazy. It becomes a conversation about metaphysics, which devolve to: How could my God do this to my blameless child?
It’s not like He just thought of it. A hell of a lot of blameless children, roughly, all of them, have been rubbed out.
A crazy thought occurs to Gabriel, who has lost his mind just as Lear does when overcome with grief and guilt and shame: what if his boy needs him in the afterlife?
So, kill yourself.
George really loses it when Gabriel tries to kill himself. I mean really loses it. You ought to see it. It must be something like what it was like when Brando did Truckline Café on Broadway and people thought there was an actor onstage having a fit.
Act Two takes place Across the River, which is really a retrospective of life lived and those still living. But the rationale for the plot twist is unsustainable. Gabriel has wanted to cross the River to help and protect his dead son from the supposed dangers of the afterlife where who knows what might befall him – and to what end, seeing as he’s already dead. Hurt his feelings, I guess.
Liam plays beautifully at the keyboard aglow in a ghostly green light. Memories swirl as eternally young Gabriel courts his young bride Emily. And there’s Dad too.
T’will serve. It’s all good. All strengths as well as weaknesses. All raison d’etre . In the afterlife there is time and reason to meet up with Dad, marvelously played by Michael O’Meara with a sheepish self-deprecation and charm. Dad says that time is short and then launches into a meandering story about a misspent summer and a botched crime that just amounts to a long excuse. That’s Dad. Still a helluva good guy.
The weight of the life lived before us in the boxing ring begins to weigh on us too. Where has it all gone? Back to the coffeehouse open-mic, and Gabriel is up. Here is Gabriel as poet philosopher and one would hope he would have a little more of Michael Bobbit’s bite, which you would be familiar with if you’d seen the ruckus he caused at the Word is Spoken and the Civic Media Center. This Gabriel poet has been chastened, he has been cleansed.
What about our purification? For that there is Anna Marie returned in a black dress with her hair down and with a blood red guitar to play and to sing for us sweet and strong.
The kid needs help with his putting in Heaven. It turns out Heaven is real nice. Here’s Burt Reynolds, permanently hid from Smokey, played suavely by Scott Gross, who is a lot taller than the real life Burt Reynolds. He delivers the punchline: “Who shoots himself with a .22?” And the whole enterprise turns comic in the end. As promised, we realize, when it was foretold to us that there would be the comic styling of Tony Martone of Hawthorne, for none such exists. The royal nonesuch, not bad for nitty gritty theater.
Across the River is a play about male bonding and fathers and sons and relationships and faith. It’s about too much maybe but O’Neill had that problem too and it didn’t stop him. He refused to be stopped.
That’s really the way you make it in the theater. You refuse to go home. If you can’t get a part, you write your own play. If they won’t put on your play, you put it on yourself, and you do that until they start to pay attention to you and start to realize that you’re not going away, and then the theater becomes your home.
The Salt Theater, home of the Nitty Gritty Theater Company, is located at 2222 NW Sixth Street, Gainesville, Florida. Across the River plays at 8pm Thursday through Saturday, February 21. There is also a 2pm matinee on Saturday, February 21, 2015.
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