Drury University Theatre's first production of the season, the surreal, absurdist "Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness" by Anthony Neilson, will open Wednesday Oct. 10 at 7:30pm in Sunderland Studio Theatre in Drury's O'Bannon Hall. The production will run through Oct.13 with evening performances Wed-Sat at 7:30pm, with an additional matinee performance Saturday the 13th at 2:00pm.
Haddy Kreie, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre at Drury, directs the production. She was joined by two Drury students in our studio Friday morning: Becca Haegele, the stage manager for the show, and actor Afton Jagels, who plays three human roles... and a bear.
Says Haddy Kreie, “it’s based on 19th-century ‘freak shows’ in London, and so it plays off that idea of spectacle, and of looking at things and people for reasons that might make them seem abnormal.” She says one line in the play says that” this is not about deformities of frame (or the body, as it were), but rather of the heart and mind.” But at the same time, she says it’s “sort of a love story about loss, and what you do when the love of your life has been lost to you. But it tells that story in a way that is grotesque and comical and ridiculous... and then very poignant at the end.” It’s a description that closely matches Drama Online Library’s description of the play as “a marvelously bizarre series of sketches... a curious miscellany of tricks, jokes and melancholy.”
The play unfolds as a series of three vignettes, and Kreie notes that the play has been criticized in the past because “the overarching (story) arc sometimes gets lost in all of the farce and slapstick. So we’ve made some choices to try and connect all three vignettes in a way that relate to the central character, Edward Gant. We’ve tried to build in a little bit more narrative regarding him and his relationship to the three stories that get told.” To do this within the confines of the play’s script, Kreie and her production team have introduced some visual elements “that suggest relationships between characters, so you start to get a sense that maybe these are not just stories he’s telling, but people he knew and interacted with, and built relationships with.” They’ve also taken some casting liberties, by casting a woman as the “Edward Gant” character. “So that changes our love story a little bit and makes it, I think, a little more enticing.”
So who is this Edward Gant person? “He’s described as an ‘opium-addicted fool!’ So there are a lot of ‘fantastical’ things about him: he’s a poet, a traveler, a showman, a soldier. And in casting a woman we were seeking to bring a little more compassion to the role, a little more sentimentality, which I think oftentimes gets overshadowed by the showmanship element of the script. So by casting a woman I think we get a very different perspective on what it means to not be able to achieve your dreams.”
Asked whether she feels Gant is exploiting the people in his traveling freak-show, Kreie notes that one of the characters complains of feeling exploited. “And then there’s short of a showdown—if you could call it that—between that character and Gant about what loneliness means, what the purpose of the theater is, what we’re all doing to deal with this existential crisis which, I think, is rooted in modernity—which is where the concept for the show comes from.” Acknowledging that the very subject of a “freak show” is politically incorrect on a number of levels, Kreie claims that “we take it to a bit of a ridiculous level, so that hopefully it’s a commentary on how easy it is to stare and to exploit each other in our everyday lives. And a lot of our choices, our design concepts, our acting choices, make you double back on yourself and be like, ‘Oh... is THAT how I see those people? Is that what I do, and how I make people feel?’”
Becca Haegele is stage manager for the show—it’s her senior-year project in the Drury theater program. She admits working on a show like this has been “a little crazy! There are a lot of moving pieces, and some different parts that we’ve had to be very... accepting of change throughout the process. But it’s been a really fun time.” While not an improvisatory production per se, director Haddy Kreie adds that “we have some very improvisational actors in the cast.” Does that make Haegele’s stage-manager job more difficult? “A little bit, yes, because I always have to track where they’re changing things, and where we maybe need to go back or forward.” Kreie promises that there’s a distinct possibility that there will be at least “mild differences” in the show from night to night.
The play calls for four actors, each of whom play several roles. But the Drury production also includes two additional characters that make what Haddy Kreie calls “cameo” appearances—“but no one will probably know who they are,” she adds. She admits that playing, and differentiating, between several characters has been a challenge for the cast.
Afton Jagels portrays Madame Poulet, who, she says, “plays the majority of the female-esque characters in the play. Madame Poulet plays Sanzonetta, “the pimple-faced girl,” and Luisa... as well as a bear later on.” She and the other cast members wear masks that indicate which character they are playing at any given time. “As Madame Poulet I don’t wear a mask, and then as Sanzonetta I have a mask that has bumps all over it. Luisa has a different mask. And as the bear I’m in, like, a ‘bear onesie’ sort of thing. So that takes care of the physical costume-changes part. But the biggest difference between Sanzonetta and Luisa is kind of how assertive they are, and how they interact with their romantic interests. Because that’s a lot of what my character does: she plays the romantic interests of the male characters, of Edgar and Signor Avarici. Sanzonetta is pretty reserved, kind of shy—she’s got pimples all over her face so she doesn’t get out much. Luisa’s more of an airhead. She’s a flirt but doesn’t really know that she’s flirting. So it’s really fun to play both of those characters, because neither of them is very much like me. So I’ve had a lot of fun exploring who these people are and how they’re different from me.”
The producers recommend this play for mature audiences. For tickets call the Drury box office at 873-7355 Mon-Fri 1-5pm, as well as one hour before curtain on show days. Tickets range from $3 to $14. Or, order tickets online at drurytheatre.universitytickets.com.