The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
Click play to hear a conversation with the cast of Blur in the Rear View.
Aleks Merilo saw a painting: Summer Evening by Edward Hopper.
In it, a man and a woman stand on a porch. He’s talking, she’s listening, “and you can tell something is not quite right,” Merilo says.
The playwright started wondering what was wrong, what the story was. That curiosity turned into a script that the University of Kentucky Theatre will present the next two weekends.
The story centers on three people who were affected by a horrible tragedy when they were in high school. It sent one of them to prison. We meet them eight years later and look back at their relationships before and after that tragedy.
“I wanted to look at how one moment can effect the course of an entire life,” Merilo says of his play, which beat about 30 other scripts from around the country and one from Australia.
“It really met all the criteria for the competition,” says UK theater department chair Nancy Jones. Those requirements included skilled writing, that it be an achievable production for the student ensemble and that it “celebrates the human spirit,” Jones says.
She says the competition’s namesake, a retired UK theater professor, “believed strongly in the last requirement, and this play fulfills that beautifully.”
She said she could not elaborate on that much because the play “is a mystery.”
For the students in the production, Jones said, it has been valuable to be able to work with a living playwright.
“It’s been very cool,” Merilo says, “though I wish I could be more involved.”
Merilo is based in California and is teaching theater at a middle school in Battleground, Wash.
Jones says, “In an ideal world, he wouldn’t be all the way across the country, but these days, there are ways to overcome that.”
Merilo says it has been good to work with the student company and get their thoughts and suggestions for the play.
“Writing, you can get really focused on your vision of what it is supposed to be,” Merilo says. “So it is good to hear other perspectives.”
Both Jones and Merilo mention the final scene, which was chopped in half after the cast said it was too long and repetitive, and Merilo agreed.
“What I appreciate is that you could be very direct,” Jones says. “Some people you have to approach it gently, but I could just call him up and say, ‘The final scene isn’t working.’”
Merilo says, “It’s been a great experience. What I love about universities is that they are willing to take risks.”
Elizabeth Guy is waiting for her cue.
Standing in the shadows, she is preparing to burst onto the stage of Transylvania University’s Lucille C. Little Theatre and exclaim that she is being chased by a rhinoceros.
She stands with her feet far apart, almost in a sitting position, though there is no seat. As her cue draws near, she bounces from her thighs, seeming in danger of falling over, at one point grabbing a wooden beam in front of her to steady herself.
“It’s Suzuki method,” says Guy, 21, a senior from Salina, Kan. “You put your body through this intense pressure, it’s really painful, and through that, you get to the real emotion, the meaning of the play.”
Guy and her fellow cast members in Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros are putting themselves through this sort of theatrical boot camp under the direction of Sullivan Canaday White, a Central Kentucky native who is on the faculty at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. As Thursday’s opening night draws near, White is finishing up a guest directing gig at Transy.
She says Rhinoceros had already been selected for the visiting director slot, “and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do that was I love this play. I love things that tend toward the farcical, and I love the timing of it. It’s a challenge for the director and the actors to repeat things and keep them fresh.”
Rhinoceros is about a man in a small French town who slowly watches everyone else turn into rhinoceroses. The play, written in 1959, was an analogy to the rise of communism and fascism in Europe before World War II.
“The nature of theater of the absurd is that you can’t understand it at first, but then you start to understand it, and that helps,” Guy says.
“It’s a play with a lot of unique demands, as any play would be that had 100 rhinoceroses charging across the stage,” says Patrick Davis, 21, a junior from Louisville who plays the guy who is not transformed, Bérenger. “We’ve had some creative experiments.”
White says, “These kids are really smart, so they’re intellectually able to grasp a play that is pretty complicated and advanced. I love that this play can spark this much interest in college students.
“In this work, I’m trying to introduce them to some new methods and a new way to grasp a complicated piece.”
With a fairly young group, White has freedom to push them physically, and it inspires some responses similar to athletes who experience things like runners’ high.
“There are days when you feel like you can’t push yourself any further, but then you do, and that’s when you really start grasp things better,” Davis says.
Part of the intention of the physically intense procedure, White says, is that the students sort of let their minds go, and in not thinking it through so much, they potentially find a deeper level of understanding.
“It’s just one way,” White says of the approach she is taking with Rhinoceros. “I’m trying to create opportunities to grow. Part of what I like about being a teacher is creating an atmosphere where students can learn.”
White’s work might be familiar to Central Kentucky audiences through her time at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she co-directed the Acting Apprentice Company, and at SummerFest, where she directed Lord of the Flies in 2008 and will return to direct Pride and Prejudice this summer.
Asked if she will apply the same techniques to Jane Austen’s tale of English gentility that she used in Ionesco’s absurdist tale, she replied, “Every play is different. Pride and Prejudice will have a more diverse age range. I have to look at each cast and what the can do and adjust accordingly.”
Judging by student responses, she might see some of her Transy charges at auditions.
“It has been awesome,” Guy says. “We have done absurdist theater before, but I have learned so much.”
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich