Contemporary Comedy By Six Feet Under Author Next at Tennessee Rep
A contemporary comedy, never produced in Nashville, by the writer/creator of HBO's Six Feet Under is Tennessee Repertory Theatre's next production, according to Executive Artistic Director David Alford. Ironically titled, Recent Tragic Events is about chance, coincidence, fate, and free will -- and uses a sock puppet to portray the prolific American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, critic, and poet Joyce Carol Oates. The play runs Jan. 26-Feb. 18 in the Johnson Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, 505 Deaderick St., Nashville.
"The play, first presented Off-Broadway in 2003, has absurdist elements, similar to sketches you might see on Saturday Night Live," Alford said. "Although adults of all ages will respond to the play, it may resonate most strongly with teen-agers to 40-somethings because the characters are all Gen Xers. Many of the best moments are recognition laughs when these audiences 'see themselves' on stage. But the piece is also very moving, and the ending packs an emotional wallop."
Directed by Rene Copeland, Tennessee Rep's producing director responsible for the bedroom farce Noises Off last season, Recent Tragic Events stars four Nashville-based Equity actors: Anitra Brumagen, Jenny Littleton, Pete Vann, and David Wilkerson. Littleton played the sassy dog in Tennessee Rep's production of Sylvia last season and Brumagen and Vann appeared in Inherit the Wind, also last season. Wilkerson most recently served as stage manager for a number of Tennessee Rep productions, but also works locally as an actor, appearing in Mockingbird Theatre's original production of Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams.
The actors will participate in a structured audience TalkBack session following each Thursday night performance and will meet informally with audience members after each Saturday evening performance.
"We believe the questions this play raises about our lives in America post-9/11 are worth talking about, so we hope audience members will plan to stay after these particular performances," Alford said.
"I know it sounds odd to think there's a comedy relating to 9/11," Copeland said, " but what Recent Tragic Events explores is how we all felt the Day After, through the eyes of a couple of sort-of-normal characters spending time with a couple of truly unusual characters. The characters themselves, of course, are devastated in the way we all were, but they also find themselves driven to ask questions about things like fate and self-determination, just like we all did.
"The play creates comedy by its structure when it challenges perceptions of reality and prompts the question: Do you really have control over your destiny?
"It does this by revealing the theatre behind the scenes of the 'reality' we are presenting by having the stage manager come out from behind the scenes to explain a couple of things. I won't give it away, but just know that we as an audience become aware of things outside the characters' awareness in the play and you can't help wondering if you have been taking your own perceived reality for granted.
"The sock puppet is another example of a funny way to ask a thoughtful question. One of the characters -- the author Joyce Carol Oates -- is portrayed by a sock puppet on an actress' hand. As the stage manager explains at the top of Act II, this Joyce Carol Oates 'is not, I repeat, is not the Joyce Carol Oates.' So the playwright, using this funny theatrical device, is able to have the characters seriously discuss whether human beings are creatures of free choice or whether they're just puppets in a way that makes us laugh and makes us pause for thought. I love that combination."
The play takes place in Minneapolis on the day after Sept. 11, 2001. A young woman (Littleton) is desperately trying to reach her sister, who lives in New York City. To deal with her anxiety, she stubbornly tries to keep her mind off the tragedy by going on with her everyday life. She continues with plans for a blind date with a nice young man (Wilkerson) who shows up at her door right on time. However, she’s too worried to go out, so they stay in, killing time by watching news coverage, ordering pizza, playing cards, and indulging in drinking games with her next door neighbor (Vann) -- an ultra-cool philosophical bass player -- and his silent female roommate (Brumagen).
As the play progresses, an amazingly coincidental relationship between the heroine and her blind date is revealed. The waiting becomes more and more surreal and soon includes a visit by the young woman’s famous relative, author Joyce Carol Oates (who happens to be trapped in town because of the airline shutdown), portrayed, in a sudden absurdist theatrical device, by a sock puppet.
"Central to the play thematically is our human instinct to try to control our own fate," Alford said. "Think of all the stories you’ve heard about people who decided, at the last minute, to call in sick instead of going to work at the World Trade Center. Or who missed a flight, only to have their lives spared. Were their lives spared for a reason? Or were they just lucky? Are we able to shape our own destiny by the choices we make or are we just pushed along by powerful forces too big for us to understand (like a puppet)? Is there a great plan for all of us or is the universe simply random? Of course, the play doesn’t preach a 'right' answer to these questions. There isn’t one. But it powerfully underscores how traumatic events make us, as individuals and as a society, do some soul-searching about fate. Were the victims of 9/11 part of a greater plan? Or were they just unlucky?"
Such big questions in a comedy?
Alford responds, "People familiar with the popular and critically acclaimed Six Feet Under will quickly recognize Craig Wright’s characteristics: clever dialogue, absurdist sense of humor, and deep emotional understanding and empathy for his characters. The play has been hailed as the richest theatrical work yet produced dealing with the events of 9/11.
"But," he cautions, "the play is not for children. Everyone should be advised the play is intended for adults who aren’t troubled by strong language. There’s a lot of it, and plenty of adult content. But neither is gratuitous. It is there because it’s how people of this particular age group in this particular culture speak to each other.
"These are young, professional, well-educated, non-church going people. They are the up-and-coming American demographic, the next in line to control our country. The majority does not share their parents’ morality or faith. In that context, the play wants to know how these people -- these people in particular -- deal with the question of destiny. An honest portrayal of the way they communicate with each other is absolutely essential if the play is to have real relevance.”
Recent Tragic Events is Tennessee Rep's third production in its Americana Season which opened with an unconventional staging of the classic musical 1776 and continued with 13 sold-out performances of The Santaland Diaries.
Asked how Craig Wright's play fits into the season, Copeland said, "There's not a more uniquely American experience. I don't mean other countries haven't suffered terrorist attacks, but we certainly stood alone in our supreme confidence we were safe on our own soil. And consequently, the 9/11 attack lead to the kind of soul-searching that only comes from being yanked out of a safe and cushy place and coming to terms with potential danger and fear in a new way. Sometimes we handled it heroically, sometimes it made us freak out. In any case, it's become an integral part of our perception of ourselves as Americans, warts and all."
Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s season sponsor is HCA/TriStar. Additional funding is provided by The HCA Foundation, The Memorial Foundation, Metro Nashville Arts Commission, and Tennessee Arts Commission.
“Nashville Public Library will again be one of our Community Partners for this production,” said Bennett Tarleton, Audience Development Director. “The link to Joyce Carol Oates, no stranger to chance, coincidence, fate, and free will in her many, many works, provides all of us an opportunity to read her work by using the library. Most theatre depends on the written word. We value it and often work with local literacy groups in the community."
Recent Tragic Events Cast
- Anitra Brumagen*
- Jenny Littleton*
- Pete Vann*
- David Wilkerson*
- Production Staff
- Director - Rene D. Copeland
- Stage Manager - Sean P. McKay
- Assistant Stage Manager - Evelyn Blythe*
- Set Design - Gary Hoff
- Costume Design - Jamie Scott
- Lighting Design - Elizabeth Deem
- Technical Director - Brian Morris
- Master Tech/Props Master - Steven Lepley
*Member Actors’ Equity Association
- Thursdays, January 26, February 2, 9, 16, 2006, 6:30 PM
- Fridays, January 27, February 3, 10, 17, 2006, 7:30 PM
- Saturdays, January 28, February 4, 11, 18, 2006, 7:30 PM
- Saturday Matinees, February 11 and 18, 2006, 2:30 PM (Signed Performance Feb. 11)
Tickets: $10-$40 (some restrictions apply). Tickets are on sale at the TPAC Box Office, 505 Deaderick St., in Downtown Nashville, at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Green Hills, and all Ticketmaster outlets. Tickets may be ordered by phone: (615) 255-ARTS (2787) or at www.ticketmaster.com.