Sunday, January 15, 2012

Faigen: 'Snow' business like show business, awk!

Port playwright Joshua Faigen, back at the Big Show.
Josh Faigen is on the phone. We’re supposed to be talking about his new play, and maybe we are. Who the hell knows? The only sound clearly audible is this horrendous, god-awful squawking, apparently some kind of bird, a parrot maybe. Name's Mary or Barry or something. Harry? Yeah, Harry. Named after his grandfather? "Don't ask," he says. Faigen, that is, not the bird. He squawks about ten minutes a day, then settles down. The bird, not Faigen. Except when he's talking on the phone. Faigen, not the bird. He doesn't like that. The bird, not Faigen. And expresses his irritation with unscheduled squawking. Usually lasts about ten minutes, then everybody can calm down. Faigen's been dealing with Harry's telephone envy for about 17 years, since  Pittsburgh, where Harry, Faigen and his wife, Penny Lazarus, lived before moving to the Port about a decade ago. Apparently, these creatures can irritate people for up to four decades, which is also interesting, but, at this point, I know more about the bird than "A Book of Snow," the new Faigen production, which will anchor this year's New Works Festival. So, now that Harry's finally calmed down, let's get busy.

The play takes its name from a stanza in "Winter Garden," a Pablo Neruda poem ("I am a book of snow, a spacious hand, an open meadow, a circle that waits, I belong to the earth and its winter.") and is informed, somewhat, by "Ethan Frome," the Edith Wharton story that is set in a bleak, frozen New England winter.  It looks at George and Vera, a husband and wife in their 60s as they, um, weather nine years trying to discover what it is, exactly, that they are looking for. And, since this is a Faigen play, it's gonna take a little work, because the Merrimac Street playwright famously snubs theatrical conventions, like characters growing, experiencing emotional arcs, linear plots — even recognizable plots, as he has admitted in the past.  Like his psychologically complex “Docent’s Son,” which tells the story of a museum volunteer trying to come to terms with the death of her son, through the language of an abstract painting. Or ”Home/Office,” in which 14 unorthodox scenes convey the complexity of marriage and work. Or the almost novelistic approach he takes in “Porch/Dusk,” a short about a Marine bereavement specialist whose job it is to deliver terrible, terrible news — a piece that ended up as an old-timey radio play.

Faigen wrote "A Book of Snow" about a year ago in his writing group, which is called The Group — "a name that is cool or stupid, depending on your mood," he says. It's never had a full reading, but, he says, came out whole, more fully visualized than previous efforts. It's built around a non-linear, circular  plot and, yes, it's hard to explain. Over the course of the production, everything that’s obvious at the beginning becomes, well, not so clear as the story circles back upon itself, but is "not as Twilight Zone as it sounds," says Faigen. "I don't know. Maybe I’m not the best person to talk to about my plays."

Okay, then, a little critical distance.

When director Kate Braun first read the play, she was "enthralled by its beauty and truth,” she says. "It's such an evocative piece and so much of what happens between the characters is unspoken, that I wanted to see it fully realized on stage.”

The play features three sets of piano pieces written by a young Richard Strauss. The music suits the emotional tenor of the piece, actually adding something to it, like a character — in the same way as the playwright built his ironically named “A Very Simple Play,” around Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbundlertanzes,” a glorious piece by a fabulously insane composer written to defend the Romantic movement against the classical thugs Schumann imagined lurking in the wings.

Faigen uses music "to create a certain mood," Braun says, "and I wanted to fully explore the juxtaposition of music, a more ethereal art form, onto the reality of the characters' relationship."

Now in its tenth year, the New Works Festival is a two-weekend play series focusing on new works by local and regional playwrights. There will be two full-length plays, three one-act plays and an evening of 10-minute shorts. Because of the busy program and the short run, productions, aside from the shorts, have been staged readings. Braun wanted to present the show completely off-book — a lot to expect from any actor for just one performance. "I chose to direct 'A Book of Snow' because I wanted to see it receive a full production, rather than a staged reading," Braun says. "I know it's a great deal of work for only one performance, but I'm very excited to see the end result."

This will be Faigen's third trip to the big show, having staged "Our Nation's Capitol," a comedy about relationships and what's for dinner at an assisted living home, in 2004 and, two years later, the previously mentioned "Docent’s Son." The show will feature Seacoast regulars Alan Huisman, also a New Works judge, and Carol Davenport.

Luckily, it looks like Larry, or Jerry, or whoever, will have his cage covered, but we hear that Jenny, the canine companion of Sam, the playwright's son's pal, will be involved in the production. No word yet on her temperament.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Joshua Faigen's "A Book of Snow" will be staged at 8 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Firehouse, 1 Market Square, Newburyport, as part of the New Works Festival, which runs from Jan. 20-28. 
  Here is the complete schedule:

Friday, Jan. 20  
"No Longer Our Town" by Jay MacNamee
"This is a comedy that begins with the Daniel Webster Society for the Preservation of Oratory hosting that evening’s guest speaker, Professor Forsythe, who is staging a few scenes from his new play, a work-in-progress that puts an updated spin on Thorton Wilder’s "Our Town." Director: Tim Diering. Actors: Victor Atkins, Terry Blanchard, Fedja Celebi, Susan Hern, Sandy Farrier, Tim Hiltabiddle, Spencer Redgate,  Jennifer Wilson, and William Woodiel, Abby Seabrook, Mark Nichols, Kerry Zagarella and Kate Bossi. Showtime is 8 p.m. 

Saturday, Jan. 21

1. "Surface" By Leslie Pasternack
In a clearing off a hiking trail, two strangers accidentally meet – and discover they aren’t alone. Director: Suzanne Bryan. Actors: Hal Fickett and Lynne Lori Sylvan. Top Honor, One-Act.

2. "Man Alien Man" by By Marc Clopton
A burgeoning friendship draws two men into encountering their own fears and prejudices. Director: Stephen Faria. Actors: Charles Bradley and William Woodiel.

3. "Scene Changes" By Donald Tongue
A one-act play in three scenes. Like Scrooge’s spirit of Christmas past, a  casting catastrophe causes a Broadway diva  to re-examine her life. Director: Anne Easter Smith. Actors: Sally Nutt and Kyle Robertson.

Friday, Jan. 27

"A Book of Snow" by Joshua Faigen
George and Vera, a middle-aged couple, weather nine years trying to discover what it is, exactly, that they are looking for. Director:  Kate Braun. Actors: Carol Davenport and Alan Huisman. Top honor, full-length.

Saturday, Jan. 28

1. "Sea Level" by  Gregory Hischak. Director: Cynthia Arsenault.
2. "Last Call "by James McLindon. Director: Jack Rushton.
3. "That Thing You Do With Your Tongue" by  R.D. Murphy. Director: Jason Breitkopf.
4. "Estrangers in the Night" by Jay MacName. Director: John Budzyna. Top honor, shorts.
5. "Blind Date" by Jack Santos and Bruce Menin. Director: Arlene Barnard.
6. "Bedtime Story" by Christopher Lockheardt. Director: Kimm Wilkinson.
7." Seeking Alpha" by Jesse Kalfe. Director: Fontaine Dubus.

The four-night festival will be produced over two weekends, Jan. 20 -21, and Jan. 27-28, at 8 p.m. at the Firehouse. Tickets are$13 for adults per evening. A limited number of four-day festival passes are now available for $38.  For tickets call 978-462-7336 or log onto at


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