Friday, January 21, 2011

All dressed up for New Works

Funny thing is “Entree Gold,” the John Minigan play that won top honors at this year’s New Works Festival — a piece that will likely raise more than a few eyebrows when it finally hits the stage next week, seeing how it looks at fallout from the complete emotional collapse of a cross-dressing Catholic pedagogue (a word conjuring up another — pedophile — because of the context, which also figures into the background), and a production so powerful that both the organizer of the festival and one of its judges both virtually called dibs on it — has been languishing in the author’s desk drawer for almost 15 years. It wasn’t until the playwright saw the call for submissions, specifically for one-act plays — a new New Works category this year — that Minigan decided to dig out and dust off this old piece of his  “and see if it made more sense” than it did back in 1995, when he “gave up on it.” It did. 

The story, caught up in the sexual abuse scandal, but isn’t about it, comes from real life. Sort of. It’s something
Minigan heard from a pal in the teachers’ lounge at Weston High School, where he has taught drama for the past 25 years. Problem is, like much of real life, if you’re lucky, it was kind of boring: Older teacher splits for Montreal, younger colleague tracks him down, brings him home. His issues? Yawn, everyday, garden-variety emotional distress — hardly worth a fuss. In “Entree Gold,” which takes its name from a swanky, $800-a-night suite at what is now the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, ramps up the story through “a series of what-ifs,” the playwright says.

In the current production, one of three one-act plays that will be staged Jan. 28 at the Firehouse Center, Peter is sent by the school's headmaster to give an “incapacitated” Leverett a ride home, but it becomes clear that the older man has something else in mind. The first clue? When the old coot emerges wearing a frilly pink negligee and a come-hither look. (And, by the way, Lev, sweetie, the grey T-shirt is killing the look.) He reveals the sexual secret that has caused him to flee their school and kept him from returning on his own. But during the encounter, Peter discovers that Leverett is more interested in unearthing Peter’s secrets than in covering up his own.

It’s delicate subject matter, but ground that was broken, locally, in the New Works Festival production of James McLindon’s  “Garden of Dromore” in 2007. That play dealt with a a family being offered a pile of hush money, essentially, just before a Catholic priest goes on trial for sexually abusing a young boy.

“Entree Gold” doesn’t dig into that whole mess. Not exactly, anyhow. But that seemingly endless drama is never far from the surface in the current production — and still engenders some push-back from the well-meaning defenders of the faith. And, before you ask, yes, Minigan is Catholic — a lapsed Catholic, granted, but ... Cue the grumbling from the anti-defamation league. The playwright laughs, recalling the old Groucho Marx bit: A hunchback and a Jew are outside a synagogue. The Jew says, I used to be a Jew.  The hunchback says, and I used to be a hunchback. “You never get away from the Church completely.”

Minigan, who who grew up in Beverly, has been all over the map, creatively, writing poetry, long-form fiction and, since 1987, for the stage. He’s has been playwright-in-residence with Orlando Shakespeare Theater, where he wrote and developed the short play “Breaking the Shakespeare Code,” and the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s New American Playwrights Project. He’s won the KNOCK International Short Play Contest and the Playwright’s Collaborative Award and been selected for the Samuel French/Double Image Best of Off-Off Broadway Festival and the Boston Theater Marathon. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

He loves the collaboration of theater, but not the way it happens, for example,  in “It’s the Jews,” a short he wrote for last year’s Boston Theater Marathon, which will be staged next week at Turtle Shell Production’s 8-Minute Madness Playwright Festival. That story is about a playwright who comes in with a story about concentration camps. He finds a director eager to do the play, which has been workshopped all over the place already, but has some, um, notes: The problem with the play, the director says, is simple: There are too many Jews in it. Even one of the Nazis is part Jewish. He wants to change the main character into a gay Gypsy dancer, making it more universal. Or something. “He wants to turn it into ‘Billy Elliott,’” Minigan says, referring to the Tony Award-winning musical about a young man punching his way out of the boxing ring into a ballet class.

He likes the process and pressure of theater, he likes banging out new pages after rehearsals, solving whatever problems crop up. "
No problem,” he says. “I don’t hold onto things as precious. Same thing happened last month in the current production, when team “Entree" called him in for a quick consult — and a minor rewrite. That was the last thing he’s heard from them. “They said they voted for me not to come back,” he says. “They said they want to surprise me.”

“Strong characters, a wonderful play,” says New Works board member Anne Easter Smith, who will be directing the show. “The older man’s obviously in  distress. He’s trapped, emotionally and physically, and can’t find his way back.  They’re worried he might harm himself. It’s got a nice twist that I’m not going to give away. The dialogue is very tight; it’s been a lot of fun.”

“When I read the play, I was struck by the compassion and sensitivity, as well as humor, it brings to a controversial subject,” says Alan Huismann, a New Works Festival judge and the guy who will play the role of Leverett. “And the dialogue is eminently sayable. ‘Wonderful parts,’ I thought, ‘and wouldn’t it be great to play Leverett?’”

The staged reading will also include Andrew White, last seen locally in last year’s production of “Boxed In” by Port playwright Steve Faria.

“They’re a joy to work with,” says Smith. “They bring a lot of energy to the show. They’re having fun with the characters.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: John Minigan’s “Entree Gold,” named best one-act play in this year’s New Works Festival, will be staged Jan. 28 at the Firehouse Center. The production will be directed by Anne Easter Smith and feature performances by Alan Huismann and Andrew White. Also on the bill will be “Lifting Rocks” by Howard Rosenfeld and “Parturition” by Michael Keamy. The festival runs Jan. 21-22 and Jan. 28-29. Single show tickets are $12. A limited number of four-day passes will be offered at $36.  For a complete schedule, click here.  For more information, check out the Firehouse web or call 978-462-7336.

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