It’s called the Directors’ Festival, this biannual showcase of theater spearheaded by University of Montana graduate drama students, but this semester’s version may well have been called the Directors’ Carnival, such are the fantastical leanings of the plays selected by second-year MFA directors Matt Greseth, Cristian Popescu and Chris Evans.
Greseth’s production of How I Learned to Drive, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play from Paula Vogel, is the most conventional of the bunch in terms of straight-up theater dynamics—but it can hardly be considered staid. The narrative structure of the play veers willy-nilly, like the metaphorical driving lesson of the title, as we follow—in forward, reverse, and neutral—the life of lead character Little Bit between the ages of 11 and 28. And then there’s the matter of the play’s central subject matter, which is anything but conventional.
Drive’s fundamental theme is the systematic, incestuous molestation of Little Bit at the hands—literally—of her Uncle Peck. But Vogel’s particular genius in this play is in her steadfast refusal to depict the situation in the two-dimensional terms of the clear-cut victimizer/victim dynamic it would seem to dictate, as she bestows Peck with an entire array of characteristics that define him as a benevolent mentor. As a result, the audience is thrown into the entirely unfamiliar position of being emotionally drawn to man who is, in part, a despicable predator.
“The biggest hurdle in putting on this play is, obviously, the subject matter,” says Greseth. “The subject of incest is so taboo that talking about it is almost as bad as doing it. It’s a little more revealing of the dark side than what Missoula is probably used to, but I encourage the public to come see it because the playwright’s intention is not simply to disturb but to give an honest look at an important social issue.”
In drama students Liz Combs and Laramie Carlsen, who play Little Bit and Peck, respectively, Greseth has mined two talents capable of embracing the moral ambiguities that lace the script. They’re helped along by moments of levity in the form of interjections by a trio of modern Greek choruses, who announce events like Bit’s “trip down mammary lane” to the ninth grade, where Bit’s well-endowed chest is an object of adolescent fascination.
Still, Greseth says that it was no small feat to get everyone comfortable enough with the subject matter to make it work. “It’s been an exercise to create trust between the actors and myself, between the actors and each other, to create an environment that allows the script to happen,” he says.
Romanian-born student director Cristian Popescu’s interests lie in the cutting edge of modern theater, and his selection of Quake, a surrealistic take on one woman’s search for a Big Love, demonstrates his willingness—and ability—to pull off projects less daring minds would blanche at.
Written in 2000 by Melanie Marnich, Quake tracks the dreamlike journey of Lucy, as she “follows the curve of the world, looking for the love of [her] life.” Along the way, Lucy encounters a series of rapid-fire relationships with a broad array of men who embody, one by one, the cartoonish flaws inherent to the gender.
This sounds like an easy recipe for male-bashing, but to Marnich’s immense credit, she makes Lucy complicit in her choices, showing that there are no simple solutions to an unfocused, devouring need.
Karen Jean Olds’ performance as Lucy delivers the mix of desire and naiveté essential to the role, but the driving forces behind the show are Popescu’s direction and an inventive set design. Popescu breathes vivid life into the scenes, which is essential considering the disjointed nature of the narrative. “I compare it to the Tarantino and Lynch style of seeing the weirdness of people,” says Popescu about the script. “It plays like a sequence of movie scenes.”
The set design aids in grounding the play, with a particularly stunning scene featuring a simple bed, propped upright, and an effective use of house lights.
Chris Evans’ turn at the helm of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is no accident. After immersing himself in dramas for the first year-and-a-half of the program at UM, he hungered for an upbeat and fast-paced project. He found it in spades with Shakespeare, an impossibly kinetic comedy that condenses all of the Bard’s immortal works into a 90-minute nugget of pure hilarity.
According to Evans, the time for a Missoula run of the play—an off-Broadway smash hit for well over a decade—is nigh. “A bunch of people have wanted to do it here for the last ten years,” says Evans, a longtime veteran of the Garden City thespian scene. “When the last effort to run it fell through, I jumped on it.”
Originally created by a trio of actors who billed themselves “The Reduced Shakespeare Company,” the starring roles are filled by drama students Matt Moisan, Nathaniel Peterson and Andy Greenfield. Decked in costumes anchored by neon tights and black high-top sneakers, the actors engage in a physical regimen of running, dashing, jumping and darting at a pace that would make Richard Simmons keel over.
How I learned To Drive runs Thursday, May 2 through Saturday, May 4. Quake runs Tuesday, May 7 through Thursday, May 9. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) runs Friday and Saturday, May 10 and 11. All performances will be shown in the Masquer Theater at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $6 and are available at box offices in the UM PAR/TV Center and the University Center. For more information, call 243-4481.