- Neil LaBute, who grew up in Spokane, is known for his edgy and impactful playwriting.
Playwright Neil LaBute hasn't gone altogether unrecognized in Spokane, his erstwhile hometown, but the current theater season brings more of his work to local stages than the last several years combined. Come January, Interplayers will put his Reasons to Be Pretty and Reasons to be Happy in rotating repertory for the first time. North Idaho College is preparing a full production of The Shape of Things for the end of this month.
But the accidental marathon is underway at Stage Left Theater with two back-to-back one-act plays from LaBute's Bash: Latter-Day Plays trilogy: Medea Redux and Gaggle of Saints. Both will be directed by Juan Mas, known locally for his work with the Spokane Film Project. The first stars Victoria Gatts as she recounts an intimate relationship with her former middle-school teacher. The other stars Alex Donnolo and Sali Sayler as a young couple who describe an evening at a party where, as is typical of LaBute, the upper-class veneer covers a brutal, bigoted act.
Mas omitted the third play, Iphigenia in orem, because of the sheer emotional intensity of the trilogy, which contributed to LaBute being disfellowshipped from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "To be honest, I felt that those two pieces were solid and long enough for an evening of theater, and a full evening of all three of those pieces is exhausting," he says.
He says that he first hit upon the idea of directing these two particular plays after seeing Stage Left's small, 80-seat space during the Hit & Run VII festival last autumn:
"I thought this would be the perfect place to start experimenting with stuff along the lines of very minimal theater where it's about the words and the performance. There's no heavy sets," says Mas. "There's no special presentation. For me, especially coming from the film world where everything's overproduced, I wanted to bring it down to the core of the story."
Between performance dates of the two Bash plays, Nike Imoru will direct actors Dan Anderson, Janelle Frisque, Todd Kehne and Jordan Lannen in a staged reading of LaBute's The Shape of Things at Stage Left. Imoru is a local casting director (most recently for the Syfy channel's zombie show Z Nation), actress, and former artistic director of Interplayers.
"It's very sparse," she says of the reading, "and Juan and I enjoy talking about the bare bones of performance — what the actor can bring inherently through the voice, the emotions and the situations that are already written in the text. It's going to be like radio theater as much as like anything else. You're listening to a series of moral dilemmas, mixed in with desires and needs and boundaries that are traversed in unthinkable ways."
That's LaBute in a nutshell, whether it's the chauvinist malice of In the Company of Men or tracing the fine line between love and hate in his most recent play, Reasons to be Pretty.
"I've always found in his work that the question is: Is the darkness in our soul inherent, or is it something that we learn?" says Mas. Imoru agrees, but notes that darkness only exists in relation to light.
"It's partly the nature of tragedy that there is this underlying thread of the ridiculous," she says. "There's something ludicrous in The Shape of Things. As we're reading it, we're howling with laughter, but only because we recognize ourselves within in it. It's important to see those things as interchangeable."
"There's no person I know who cannot laugh when you put a mirror up in front of their face out of the uncomfortableness," says Mas. "And that lightens you up to absorb the bigger picture." ♦
Bash • Oct. 3-19: Fri-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • The Shape of Things • Oct. 6 & 13: Mon, 7:30 pm • $10 • Stage Left Theater • 108 W. Third • spokanestageleft.org • 838-9727