Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Once upon a time, Greg Moss wrote a play

Aisha Chodat plays Jenny in the new Greg Moss play. Photo by Lydia See.
It's not like anyone hoodwinked him, he was not dragged, kicking and screaming, into the project. He went along willingly, however cautiously, saying he would kick the idea around a little, to keep an open mind, just see what happens, but with a boatload of doubt, because Gregory S. Moss, a homegrown, but lately a globetrotting playwright, just back from a French premiere of his play "House of Gold," is a little distrustful of the form — "skeptical" is how he puts it — even though some of his work is built along similar structures. So when Edward Speck, artistic director of Theater in the Open, a company Moss had been involved with for more than 15 years, approached him, asked him to do an original adaptation of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale — any one, his choice — Moss thought ... I'm probably not the right guy to do a straight adaptation, but maybe I could take a different approach. So he dug into the literature, the folklore of fairy tales. He read the usual Freudian takes about what is going on below the surface of these creepy, disturbing, if you think about it, stories — or, at least, the ones that the evil genius Walt Disney hasn't gotten his dreck-stained fingers all over, and came up with something original, spellbinding — a modern Grimm-like fairytale set in the here and now, specifically Newburyport, or "this Puritan black hole of the universe" as our 15-year-old heroine Jenny Stone (Aisha Chodat) puts it — a little city by the laughing waters that geeky Froggy (Max Vye) — a characters whose name might ring a bell with all you clever kids out there — was told to avoid at all costs.

No, "Grimm: or the Uses of Enchantment," which runs weekends through October 2 at Maudslay State Park, is not your normal fairy tale. It is something else entirely — a fairy tale that disavows the form explicitly while embracing it implicitly. Jenny is the new kid in town, thrown into the middle of the usual high school melodrama — the jocks, the geeks, the vapid mean girls — but doesn't have the patience for any of it. She's got real troubles. The guidance counselor would — or will or has or should— probably label her "at-risk." Her family has split up after experiencing an unspecified trauma. She is also carrying around a load of guilt. Something is wrong, very wrong. In her first day at school, she is thrown into a class about fairy tales, which, she believes, is about as useful, academically, as the Kardashians, whatever they are. Speaking for the playwright, Jenny makes it clear from the beginning that she is not down with it, ridiculing Professor Shipp (Beth Randall) fairly obnoxiously and in true smarty pants fashion that the unit about fairy tales is worse than hokum, or "fantasy nerd BS," as she puts it, that fairy tales are sexist, racist, delusional and regressive — all true. As is her comment, cynical though it may be, that the only happy ending in real life comes from low-rent Asian massage parlors. The class continues with the teacher explaining the theory, mechanics and psychology of fairy tales — the product of the playwright's research — using the Brothers Grimm tale "Little Brother and Little Sister" as an example. The story in these pages, we know, is somehow caught up in the story of her life. She keeps losing her place in the present, she keeps slipping in and out of "dreams." Her real world is becoming a fantasy. Her life becomes the fairy tale. She is about to be tested in an offbeat, down-the-rabbit-hole-ish psychological mystery.

Moss, who lives in Minneapolis, although he’s hardly ever there, made a big splash on the local scene in the ’90s with the edgy, irreverent Independent Submarine, but has been making a name nationally over the last couple of years, with productions in New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles, and, last month, bumped up his profile to international, when a French company staged "House of Gold," his creepy, in-your-face take on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case and, more to the point, the disturbing culture that produced and tricked out the pre-pubescent beauty queen, and nurtured the case of her brutal murder for our nightly amusement. Like his take on fairy tales, Moss was “skeptical” about the Paris production, figuring “I would go over there and they would, I don’t know, harvest my organs or something,” he says. But he returned with all organs, best he can tell. He calls the production “one of the most positive experiences I've had,” he says. “It's weird I had to go so far to have it.”
The current production opened last Saturday, but while it's "a big deal for me personally to be back here," he said during an interview days before the opening, referring both to the city and Theater in the Open, Moss's role in the actual production, aside from the actual writing, has been marginal. He's been in town for a couple of days, fresh from a teaching excursion in Walla Walla, Washington, of all places, and attended a couple of rehearsals, but otherwise has left things in the hands of director Stephen Haley, who is directing back-to-back productions with TITO, the last production being a hellish vision of Sartre’s “The Flies.” Haley has also directed Moss’s last two shows at the Firehouse. Moss could not attend the opening of “Uses of Enchantment” because of a conference in upstate New York, but he will be at shows this weeklend. Won’t be around long though, with two production of his work on the immediate horizon, a Los Angeles production of "House of Gold," and a Chicago production of "The Argument," the playwright's take on life, death and regret in post-Katrina New Orleans, although the hurricane is never mentioned by name, a non-literal, funny, grotesque, apocalyptic fairy tale — yes, there it is — conceived as a response to the disaster.

And, despite our heroine's furious denials at the beginning of the the current fairy tale/non-fairy tale, "Grimm" does have a happy ending, of sorts but not in the way you might expect, the one that Uncle Walt might give us,  but ... well, let's just say the frog gets kissed.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Theater in the Open stages "Grimm; or, The Uses of Enchantment" by Gregory Moss at 4 p.m. weekends through Oct. 2 at Maudslay State Park. The cast includes Aisha Chodat, Beth Randall, Max Vye, Mary Beth LaPlaca, Kayla Murphy, Tori Hart, Edward Speck, Spencer Redgate, James Sheridan, Michelle Chabot and Max Tulgren, Lia Fitzsimmons, Ben Hanke, Jake Martin, Connor Miller, Kayla Murphy, and Claire Renales. The performance is free, there is a $2 fee for parking. Stephen Haley directs. Allow 15 minutes for a short stroll to the play site. Follow the Theater in the Open flags. This is an outdoor production. For more information call 978-465-2572 or log onto theaterintheopen.org. For more photos from the production, log onto lydiasee.com


1 comment:

  1. This play was oodles of fun... and definitely a suggestion of the curious perspective with which Greg Moss writes plays. I'm interested to see his other works.

    Just commenting because this post looked lonely. And because of "the frog gets kissed".