Available Light, for which I have an undisguised affinity, has undertaken a project to stage brand new work - in various stages of readiness and experience, in readings or workshop stagings, each piece one show only: Next Stage Initiative. This weekend I went to all three productions (next weekend with scheduling I can only make two of the three). It's predictably uneven but it's also, perhaps just as predictably, one of the most inspiring and invigorating things I've seen in a while.
Two of the pieces were brand new - Matt Slaybaugh's Leaving the Atocha Station and Camille Bullock's Southern Cross the Dog - and so what I say about them will be a little vaguer and avoid judgments because I want to respect where they are in the process. Mickle Maher's There is a Happiness that Morning Is has already been produced by his company, Theatre Oobleck, in Chicago and is pretty well frozen so there'll be a little more detail there.
Leaving the Atocha Station is based on a novel by Ben Lerner that I haven't read, and honestly avoided reading before this because I wanted to experience the play as a defined, stand-alone thing. It's an extremely complex, ambitious work about the inner life and connecting with yourself and others with some astonishing language, including some really poetic, rhythmic stage direction that I'm fascinated to see translated to a stage. Available Light is doing a full production at the end of the current season (I think in June) and if it's half as good as I think it's going to be from this early version it'll be another home run and help cement Slaybaugh as one of the finest adapters of complicated novels for the stage. And while it was made clear that the actors in this were not committed to the final production, they were all perfectly chosen, especially David Tull and Eleni Papaleonardos.
Camille Bullock's Southern Cross the Dog was based on Bullock's time with Teach for America and focuses on three just-out-of grad school teachers and three young children from the same family dealing with the death of the family's father. At this stage, there's a lot of work to be done but the language is already gorgeous and there's a grasp of image I really hope Bullock explores and goes deeper into because there were a few astonishing, moving moments including a framing sequence built around Jimmy Ruffin's classic song "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted". And the acting was phenomenal - particular credit to Cameron Williamson as all of the external authority figures, making each of them distinct people even with limited stage time and all three of the children but especially Janice Robinson.
A. and I saw Maher's An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on His Final Evening in Chicago at Oobleck on a phenomenal trip including the wedding of one of my dearest friends and the last show I ever saw from guitarist Jack Rose and were both blown away. We missed There is a Happiness that Morning Is (but no complaints because that trip we saw McCraney's Head of Passes) so I was very, very excited AVLT staged this as part of Next Stage.
Matt Slaybaugh and Eleni Papaleonardos read as two professors, Ellen and Bernard, who both lecture on William Blake at a declining Antioch-style college and find themselves in the position of having to apologize for having sex the previous night in full view of the campus body and the enraged president of the university. In rhymed verse this was an hour and a half of the kind of theater that makes me want to throw up the devil horns and skip all the way home. It brilliantly delineated these two people, where they are now, the arc of their relationship and worked in real insight about Blake and the declining state of education.
Slaybaugh's experience as a performing poet served him a little better here, he was astonishing here, burying the rhymes where he needed to and finding a very conversational rhythm to fill with that exquisite balance of heightened and coarse language. Papaleonardos landed hard on the rhyme a little more often but summed up the gravitas and fury of her character in a way that would be hard to better. Following the trend of the Chicago press and the introductory remarks at the theater that night, I won't reveal what character mark Evans Bryan played but he was perfect and hilarious. I really hope this play has an extra life in Columbus where I can drag some people out to see it - this could be a real crowd-pleaser.
Next Stage Initiative runs through January 18th at Studio Two Theater in the Riffe Center. Information: http://avltheatre.com/shows/next-stage/