Greek playwright Zoe Mavroudi entrusts the world premiere of her new play to Venus Theatre
Two strangers sharing a private room over drinks might not typically turn to talk of “Crime and Punishment.” But this is no ordinary evening, and, for Venus Theatre, The Stenographer is no ordinary play. Written as one scene, told in real-time between a college professor and an exotic dancer, Zoe Mavroudi’s new play opens there this week as a world premiere production.
The opening comes after several weeks of discussion about love, literature, and the unique possibilities that a two-person play provides. “When I first started reading this play they seemed like two people I would never want to know. But by the end I was completely invested,” said Deb Randall earlier this week. Randall serves as Venus Theatre’s Artistic Director. “There’s something incredibly authentic about it. It really spoke to me in its honesty and its simplicity.”
In the play, set in a small academic town, a professor of Russian Literature (Frank Britton) visits a strip club, picks up a dancer (Amy Rhodes), and brings her home. Once there, he launches into a conversation about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, for which he fosters an obsessive curiosity. Before long, however, the conversation grows more unexpected and intimate than either would have predicted.
The pairing of such unlikely characters was part of the fun of writing The Stenographer, said Mavroudi in an interview this week. By featuring two characters who are seeming opposites — man and woman, scholar and stripper — she hopes to surprise us, to reveal the details of why these people aren’t entirely who they say they are. “The moments when a secret about a character comes to light,” Mavroudi said. “There are two such pivotal moments in the play and I had to get them right. In a way, the entire play was structured around these moments.”
Arriving at these discoveries — these moments of unexpected truthfulness — is the big reward. “Two people find each other and discover something about each other and about themselves, except these discoveries come initially in a rather sinister cloak,” Mavroudi explained. “The characters will not recognize the importance of these moments until the end of the play, but when they do they are changed forever, and the possibility of a better life opens up for both of them.”
Venus Theatre’s performance space — just off Main Street in Laurel, Maryland — seats between 30 and 40 people. For Randall, it’s the perfect size space for this show. “It’s immersive,” she said. “The audience is right there, breathing with the actors.” Randall, who also directed this production, explained that the show will play with audience seated on two sides facing inward toward the stage, increasing the feeling of intimacy even more. And yet, for such closeness, the professor and the dancer almost never touch. “I love that tension,” Randall added. “There’s a real power in that.”
Britton has grown to appreciate this closeness during the rehearsal process. “These two people need something from one another, and what’s even more interesting about that is that it’s not what one would normally expect. There’s an enormous amount of tension,” he said.
Using Dostoevsky’s book as a launching point for the play, he added, was especially fascinating. “The Professor is also a great storyteller, and there is a passion that comes with it. “Crime and Punishment” has become this man’s life; and he holds this novel in such high regard and esteem that it becomes almost Biblical.”
For Mavroudi, building Dostoevsky into the text helped to broaden the possibilities of her two-person play. “Because it’s a book that tackles all these very large ideas, it was a way to inject that kind of scope into that very contained structure,” she said. “I somehow almost always end up writing contained stories… I am interested in dramatizing what might happen when two strangers get stuck in a room and have to spend time together. In The Stenographer, the characters resist saying what they’re really thinking and what they have really come here to say until they can’t help it any more, until it’s absolutely vital to speak up. I don’t think that kind of dynamic would have been as effective in a more expansive format.”
Originally from Greece, Mavroudi is currently in London performing the run of her new one-woman show, Beauty is Prison-Time. Over the past several weeks, she and Randall have had many conversations about the novel (which Randall has been reading this year) and about these two characters. “She’s so open,” Randall said. “It’s a fabulous web of support that’s being born.”
The enthusiasm this show has already met with is particularly encouraging given that a mere year ago, Venus Theatre was reconsidering its future as an arts venue. Over the past months, however, the city of Laurel established Randall’s neighborhood as an arts district. “Now I’m meeting with City Hall,” she said. “It’s a very interesting time.” If shows like The Stenographer find success, she added, her company will be moving forward with new projects, including the possibility of a new plays festival.
One of the largest challenges in writing the play, Mavroudi said, has been to use “Crime and Punishment” in ways that truly excite. “This seemingly casual discussion gradually becomes more and more personal to both characters,” she said, “and I had to find a way to have them talk about the book without becoming too esoteric or too academic.” It has helped, she added, to keep in mind the little fact that inspired her to write the play in the first place: Dostoevsky, while drafting what came to be the famous novel, fell in love with — and married — his stenographer Anna.
“It was almost like the ultimate literary affair, where a love is born out of writing,” she said. “Where it’s impossible to distinguish the love from the book.” For Mavroudi, Dostoevsky’s wife, is a symbol of “the fact that nobody can remain a stenographer for too long. Once your writing becomes personal and deeply felt, it’s no longer stenography. It’s no longer just words, and it’s not something you can walk away from.”
It was this intimate connection to language and literature that captivated Randall in the first place. Randall read many play submissions in consideration for Venus Theatre’s current season before settling on The Stenographer. “If it needs pyrotechnics and a big production budget, I’m typically not interested,” she said. “I’m concerned mainly with the energy of the work, and the level of craft. To me, it’s all about the characters and the story. How it affects me during that first read. That’s really sacred to me. There’s no formula. I just have to feel really passionately about it. ”
The Stenographer plays through September 25th at the Venus Theatre Play Shack in Laurel, MD. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.venustheatre.org/.