Genesis West | Calling the kettle blue
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Calling the kettle blue

Santa Barbara News Press, Scene Section, 11/04/05

Calling the kettle blue



If you were to poll theater professionals and ask them their favorite unknown playwright, the likely consensus would be Caryl Churchill.

The British dramatist had considerable success in the late 1970s and early ’80s with “Cloud 9” and “Top Girls,” plays which used an absurdist style to convey feminist themes. In the years since, she has written steadily and won many awards, but outside her native England, she hasn’t received a lot of high-profile productions.

On one level, it’s easy to understand why. Churchill is constantly experimenting with form, and audiences used to linear plots and realistic dialogue can find her plays puzzling.
On the other hand, there’s an astonishing level of creativity to her work. Serious themes such as political repression, environmental degradation and the implications of human cloning are explored in surprising, playful ways.

“She trusts the audience on a really deep level,” said Santa Barbara playwright and sometimeactress Ellen Anderson. “She takes you by the hand and goes, ‘C’mon! Jump!’ ”
“We’re all taking a leap together,” agreed Maurice Lord, who is leading the charge off the cliff. The Santa Barbara-based director has reconstituted the Genesis West theater company and announced a season consisting of three Churchill plays.

The first production, a set of two one-acts under the umbrella title “Blue Heart,” opens at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Center Stage Theater.
“I’ve known this (pair of plays) for a while,” Lord said in an interview. “Churchill has always been one of my favorites, and this one in particular just seemed insane. When I first read it, I thought, ‘It’s brilliant, but it’s unproducible.’ ”
So, naturally, he chose to produce it. In a testament to Churchill’s appeal to actors, he has assembled a veteran company including Leslie Gangl Howe, Tim Hinshaw, Chris Turner and Emma-Jane Huerta. The cast also features Anderson, who is better-known as a playwright and a playwriting teacher than as an actor.
“Caryl Churchill is the reason I’m a playwright,” she said. “I saw ‘Cloud 9’ in 1979 at the Royal Court Theatre (in London) and thought, ‘If this is a play, then maybe someday I can write a play.’
The two plays of “Blue Heart” are quite different — from one another, and from anything resembling conventional theater. The opener, “Heart’s Desire,” “plays with time,” Lord said. “She wrote an intentionally corny kitchen-sink drama, words, and kettle is a two-syllable word. You’re trying to convey ‘who’ (while actually) saying ‘kettle.’ That was a huge challenge. But when it gets going, it’s understandable. The audience will get it.”
which is about four pages. It gets replayed, with variations, 28 times. We see the same scene over and over again, each time with an absurdist twist or some poignant monologue added.”
“There is one scene where we just say the first parts of each line,” said Gangl Howe. “There’s another where we just say the last words of each line. We have to marry the movements, keeping in mind what we were doing on the first part of the line.”
The second play, “Blue Kettle,” also plays with language. “It’s about a (40-year-old) man who goes to a series of women and claims he’s the son they gave up for adoption,” Lord said. We watch the various ways the elderly women he approaches react to this startling piece of news.
Then things start really getting strange.
“As the play progresses, the words ‘blue’ and ‘kettle’ replace normal words,” Lord said. “They slowly take over the language, until the end, where the dialogue is just broken-up songs of ‘bl’ and ‘ket’ and el.’ But the scene makes sense.”
He pulled out a copy of the working script. Above the actual lines of dialogue, which consist in large part of the words “blue” and “kettle,” he has penciled in the dialogue the characters think they are saying — or, perhaps, are trying to say.
“It was definitely an interesting memorization process,” said Gangl Howe. “We had to memorize both the printed words and the texts in our head.
“The challenge was, some of the translations were one-syllable words, and kettle is a two-syllable word. You’re trying to convey ‘who’ (while actually) saying ‘kettle.’ That was a huge challenge. But when it gets going, it’s understandable. The audience will get it.”
“Caryl Churchill makes the audience fill in the blanks,” said Anderson. “She makes you participate — and that’s fun! You get to fill in the words yourself!”
Which is not to say the plays are simply word puzzles. These one-acts have “a huge emotional core,” Anderson insisted. “(They deal with) love, loss, commitment, guilt. It’s absolutely honest work.”
Genesis West developed a reputation for honest, challenging work during its previous existence, from 1998 to 2001. The company, founded by Lord and playwright, director and critic Michael Smith, produced plays by such iconoclastic geniuses as Sam Shepard, George Walker and Maria Irene Fornes.
In 2001, Smith moved to Oregon, Lord relocated to Los Angeles and the company dissolved.
But after several years of feeling homesick, Lord, a UCSB graduate, decided to return and reconstitute the company.
Smith is returning from up north to design the lighting for this first production. It will be followed by Churchill’s political allegory “Far Away,” which Lord will stage in the spring.
Restarting a company by presenting aggressively challenging work is certainly a daring decision. But then, this playwright inspires that sort of risk-taking.
“When you’re with a fearless friend, you do things you wouldn’t normally do,” Anderson said. “Caryl Churchill is a fearless friend.”