Alcestis in Baghdad and Cardinia’s CallingHunter playwrights festival kicks off with two strong outings
“We are making a bit of history here,” said Mark Bly, the production manager of the Hunter Playwrights Festival, to an audience right before the Friday night staging of Alcestis in Baghdad. Bly was referring to the inauguration of the Playwrights Festival, a culmination of two years of study for Hunter’s Playwriting MFA students.
The Playwrights Festival is sponsored by the Rita and Burton Goldberg Fund, which pledged $1 million in 2010 for the creation of the new MFA Playwriting program. These performances are unprecedented. Bly told The Envoy that “no other [MFA] program has assembled teams of professional directors, actors, designers, stage managers, as well as student actors” to stage students’ plays.
The festival’s first week, April 25-April 28, showcased two pieces in Hunter’s Frederick Loewe Theatre; Alcestis in Baghdad, written by Johnna Adams, and Cardinia’s Calling, written by Holly Hepp-Galván. Both plays feature strong, complex female leads desperately trying to hold onto their deep sense of spirituality in a world that doesn’t want to listen.
Alcestis in Baghdad tells a tale of secrets, love and sacrifice. Adams’s title recalls Alcestis, Euripides’s ancient Greek saga of a wife who offers up her life in exchange for her husband’s. Alcestis in Baghdad shadows the reference with a Detroit housewife, Alcy, who mysteriously appears in Baghdad where her husband is stationed with the Army. Alcy, who has a history of mental illness, informs her husband that she’s there to die for him, having been told by her god, Apollo, that her husband’s death is imminent.
Viewers are quickly transported to Iraq in the black box theater. The sparse set is not fancy but it effectively evokes distant lands -- a few army helmets and mounds of sand are laid out. The choice to set the play against the war’s backdrop smartly ties into Adam’s exploration of gender and cultural stereotypes. The military hero is a woman instead of a man, while the “mentally unstable” character is a housewife and not a soldier.
Kelley Rae O’Donnell makes Alcy lovable and relatable, even as she shouts haunting prayers to Apollo and claims that she’s pregnant with his child. Alcy’s jarring talk of gods and fate is occasionally brought down to earth by the playwright’s skilled timing and the actors’ believability. Adams inserts humor at the right moments; when Alcy darkly admits she’s been sacrificing animals in her backyard for Apollo, she adds, “I would never sacrifice anything bigger than a hamster!” By completely committing to the role, O’Donnell turns the viewers from skeptics to cheerleaders.
Perhaps because the audience is firmly on Alcy’s side, her husband Mike, played by Ron Kagan, is unlikable. It’s a blessing that he has less stage time because the play belongs to the women. Army corporal Paula, played by Kunji Rey, could have been reduced to an intermediary role between the audience and Alcy, but Rey imbues her character with such empathy and open-mindedness that she becomes integral.
The show’s scene-stealer is actress Jillian Stevens, who plays Mike’s mistress and superior, Kim. Adams has written a complicated character – Kim’s a decorated military sergeant, hardened soldier, scorned lover, and a mother. Stevens rises to the challenge, storming across the stage with ferocity, spitting out curse words with conviction, and displaying moments of heartbreaking vulnerability.
The exploration of complex female characters continued in the festival’s final production of the week, Cardinia’s Calling. Holly Hepp-Galván’s play centers around the title character, Cardinia, played brilliantly by Adrienne Williams. Cardinia feels displaced from her Australian Aboriginal roots, but tries to reignite the power of her culture by teaching her ancient language to a moody 13-year-old Upper East Sider.
Cardinia’s Calling feels magical before it even begins, benefitting from professionals coordinating the festival’s set designs. The center of the stage is transformed into a messy Manhattan apartment complete with family portraits, a stocked bookshelf and clothes strewn across the floor. Surrounding the fairly typical scene are branches hanging from the ceiling, lit from above like tiny, ethereal trees suspended in air.
Later in the play, those trees suddenly begin to sparkle, creating an aesthetically breathtaking scene. The stage lighting, too, enhances the material; sometimes the stage is almost completely darkened save for characters bathed in celestial light, enhancing the work’s otherworldly tone.
The breathtaking set does not overshadow the actors. Steven Russo imbues the teen character, Aaron, with the right mix of apathy and cautious curiosity about his new nanny Cardinia. Angela Rambourg plays Aaron’s shrill, workaholic mother, Abby, who is written well enough to escape the trappings of xenophobic caricature. The only weak link is Matt Raines as James, an American linguist who has ties to each woman. Given the hold he has over some of the characters, the role requires a man so full of charisma that he can seduce the audience along with the women onstage. Raines falls short.
The play hinges on whether or not you feel for Cardinia, who has lost herself amongst the technology-driven and ruthlessly forward-thinking Western world. Williams delivers, bringing Cardinia’s inner-struggle to life. When she recites the Aboriginal language, its sound is alien, but the power of her words is overwhelming.
At the play’s end, the audience gave a rollicking standing ovation to the cast and playwright. Hepp-Galván’s play, all about the power of language, clearly moved the audience and underscored the importance of the festival – giving a voice to these talented artists. During Alcestis in Baghdad, Alcy reiterates one phrase: “This is her time. Not someday, now.” She could easily be talking about Adams and Hepp-Galván, whose work in the festival promises great things in the future.
The Hunter Playwrights Festival continues from May 9 -12.