Lobster Alice. No, it’s not a specialty at some upscale Cleveland Park hotspot for foodies. It’s a play running for one more week (through October 12th) at the Writer’s Center in downtown Bethesda, a production by the theatre company Flying V. I saw it on Monday night, and I loved it.
I’m not the only one. In her review on DCTheatreScene.com, Lorraine Treanor wrote, “Lobster Alice is a spectacular production of a very funny absurdist play. I know it’s a busy Fall season, but make sure you see this one.” Andrew White’s broadwayworld.com review is also a rave: “Director Amber Jackson has assembled a brilliant cast, creating an anarchic and, yes, surreal atmosphere in which anything and everything can happen.”
I spoke with Director Jackson and with the company’s Producing Artistic Director Jason Schlafstein during separate phone interviews on Tuesday. Schlafstein explained how the play came to the company’s attention and how it fits into the company’s mission and identity.
Martin Blank is Artistic Director of American Ensemble Theater. “He gave me the play about three and a half years ago,” Schlafstein told me. Flying V had just started, and Blank told Schlafstein that “he thought it would be a great fit for our mission and also a great vehicle for Zachary.” Zachary is Zachary Fernebok, a company member at Flying V, a former Playwright in Residence at American Ensemble Theater, and, in Lobster Alice, the actor who plays the legendary surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
If you’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller Spellbound, you know that Dali collaborated on the, well, Dali-esque dream sequences in that film. Apparently, Dali also collaborated with Walt Disney, although the result has only recently seen the light of day. However, with Stoppardian ingenuity, playwright Kira Obolensky takes that historical kernel and imagines Dali on the Disney lot in 1946 Hollywood. And in the artistic hopper at the Disney office was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a work you can easily see inspiring both Disney and Dali.
Schlafstein explained that the company focuses on contemporary work which explores “modern mythologies” that are created by, or intersect with, popular culture. A play that is a mash-up of Dali, Disney, and Carroll hits the company’s sweet spot. He went on to describe the company’s interest in a balance between high concept and intimate moments of personal interaction. “It’s a big mix of ideas with a big pop cultural hook, but, at its core, it’s really a personal story of two people [the Disney staffers with whom Dali interacts] who may or may not be right for each other.”
And how did Jackson become involved? “I was on their radar,” she told me. “I had worked with a lot of the company members there. When I met Jason, we hit it off. He’s one of those people who is excited to jump into the deep end. He’s enthusiastic and passionate about the work; people immediately feel that when they meet him. The sky’s the limit for that company if they continue to dream big and push and continue to grow.”
Schlafstein also learned that Jackson “had a past relationship” with Lobster Alice. “It was one of the top three shows I pitched in grad school.” (Her thesis project ended up being another of the three, Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl.) “I knew they had done readings. Jason reached out and asked, ‘Hey, are you interested?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? Let’s talk, brother!’ They wanted to do it, I had wanted to do it for a long time, our paths crossed at the right time.”
The Writer’s Center has recently undergone a renovation. Still, it’s a space with limitations. I’ve seen impressive sets in the space, but never one that operates as surprisingly, as impressively, as does the set for Lobster Alice. (The Scenic Design is by Jos. B Musumeci Jr, who was also manning the box office on Monday night.) Really, what they create in that space — you won’t believe it.
“Going into small spaces, and I did this for Orlando, too,” Jackson continued, referring to the play by Ruhl she directed for WSC Avant Bard last winter at Arlington’s Theatre on the Run, “the first thing is, okay, how can this be a transformative experience for the audience, how can we make this exciting for people who have been to the space over and over. That was part of the conversation early on.” Wow, they succeeded. And what they do with the space isn’t at all gratuitous. Rather, it creates a surreal landscape that is perfect for this play.
“Sometimes, the biggest challenges end up happening easiest,” Jackson said as she described her initial trepidation about the “surrealist ballet that happens after intermission. I was having dreams and nightmares about what that moment should be.” The dance is meant to reflect Dali’s work and it inspires one of the Disney staffers to describe it as beautiful and perfect — I can understand why that would be intimidating! “Thank God for Ryan and Jenny,” Jackson continued, referring to Jenny Donovan and Ryan Alan Jones, who not only perform that dance but also interact so strikingly with the set that an unexpected entrance/exit device is used more than once while still retaining the “wow” factor and the surprise.
As we continued to talk about Jackson’s cast, I mentioned that my husband had said that Daniel Corey (along with Donovan, as one of the two Disney staffers, Corey’s is the largest role in the play) keeps getting better and better with each role. (We had only recently seen him at Longacre Lea in Pol Pot and Associates, LLP.) “I’m super proud of Dan,” Jackson concurred. “It’s a huge role with a complicated journey. I’m so grateful for each one of [the cast.]
They all approached the work with 100% intensity. Ryan, who has only two small scenes during which he speaks, was committed from day one to finding all the layers. Jenny, that poor girl!” Jackson described the physical rigors of her part: “She never complained. And Zach [as Dali] was really focused on the details of getting the accent just right, but also on finding a real, human character, not just a caricature — all the homework he did to make the character more than the caricatures, the familiar sort of character that we think we know.”
And how is it for Jackson, being a young, free-lance director in Washington, a vocation in which women are notoriously underrepresented? “It’s hard. Any town is hard, but DC definitely has its own way of working and for directors to get work. I’m approaching five years of living in the DC area. The first few years there were a lot of staged readings and ten-minute plays and really trying to take the time, put in the time so people would learn to trust me. It’s pretty hard to break through doors, to say to Artistic Directors, ‘Hey, I’m new in town, give me a chance.’ One mentor told me that you would need a New York credit for DC people to take you seriously. Another said that I would need to run a theater. Maybe doing those things would have given me more opportunities faster, but it’s not how I wanted to approach things. Actors have been my biggest advocates. It’s been surprising the way actors have advocated for me as someone they want to work with. That’s exciting and humbling in a lot of ways.”
Jackson, Schlafstein told me, is the first guest director that Flying V has brought in from outside the company. He used that fact to illustrate the strides the company is making in response to my question about how things are going for Flying V. “That’s such a weird question to try and answer, because I’m on the inside and I have to trust outside perspectives.”
Closes October 12, 2014
Flying V Theatre Company at
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
[/ezcol_1third]Pete Miller is a supporter and advisor to the company. He’s one of the savviest and most generous mentors to local theaters, large and small. He’s kind of the Michael Kaiser of the local theatre scene, and he sits on the Advisory Board of Flying V. Miller advised Schlafstein to avoid a common mistake that new companies make, which is to “relive the first year over and over again. And this year has been a big step forward. We got our non-profit status. We got two years of office space thanks to a grant from the Trawick Foundation. They’re awesome,” Schlafstein exclaimed, employing the word that his familiars will recognize as a sort of mantra. “It was also our strongest year artistically. Next year, we want to take steps forward both artistically and infrastructurally. That’s the big question over the next year — how, in a Flying V way, can we improve how we get people in, how we make new fans?”
In the program for Lobster Alice, there is a credit for “Audience Design: Tia Shearer Bassett.” And what exactly is that — a creative way that the seating is configured? Schlafstein explained: “What that does and means is thinking a lot more about how we build our community.” Describing the Audience Designer as a position that is part production, part marketing, and part dramaturgical, he pointed out the interactive opportunities for the audience at Lobster Alice. There was a visual artist at work in the lobby as we entered. We could write on the chalk board or play the mirror game. Going forward, the effort will be to reach audiences that may not go to theatre much, but are part of a “taste community” in that they do partake of other genres and mediums such as indie rock and comic books. “If you like this kind of stuff, you will like us.”
Next up for the company will be The Pirate Laureate and the King of the Sea, a sequel by Fernebok to his 2013 play, also produced by Flying V, The Pirate Laureate of Port Town. Fernebok, by the way, as a company member, gave the post-show talk after Monday’s performance. Partly, indeed mostly, in his Dali character, it was about the most unusual post-show pitch I’ve seen. Which makes it of a piece with the rest of Flying V’s Lobster Alice — something unexpected and different and delightful.
Full disclosure: my husband Jay Hardee was part of Amber Jackson’s Orlando cast at WSC Avant Bard; Jay and I directed Daniel Corey in Richard III at WSC Avant Bard and acted with him there in Juno and the Paycock; I acted on Jos. B Musumeci Jr’s set for WSC Avant Bard’s King John; I directed Ryan Alan Jones in the Rainbow Theatre Project staged reading of The Drag; and I availed myself frequently of Pete Miller’s invaluable consul while I was Artistic Director of WSC Avant Bard.