When I first saw Theatre J’s season announcement, I knew I wanted to talk with John Vreeke, director of Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, which is having its area premiere at Theatre J. Luckily for us, he was able to pull away from rehearsals for this 3.5 hour play to discuss the production’s scale and how it fits into the DC theatre scene.
Alan Katz: First Question, who are you?
John Vreeke: I think the best way to find out who I am is to check out my website and see the kind of work I have done in DC over the past 15 years. It’s quite a bit. And I direct plays, I guess that’s why you’re talking to me. Beyond that, I live with my partner in Seattle, we’ve lived in West Seattle since 1988 off and on, we own our house there. We moved to DC in 2000, stayed for almost 10 years, then for a variety of reasons we moved back. We love to explore the mountains, hike a lot and bike a lot. I don’t do any theater in Seattle (not by choice!). But I like what I do here; as long as these great Artistic Directors around DC keep putting up with me, I’m glad to keep coming back and directing some great plays.
AK: You’re doing that right now with Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide [I-Ho]. What’s your journey with that play been like?
JV: I first read the play about a year and a half ago. Its a difficult script to read, since a large percentage of the script is written in overlaps. Two or three conversations might be happening in a room concurrently. Just keeping track of who is talking to who, in the way that Tony [Kushner, author of the play] scored this text, but once you figure out what his instructions are, you can then slowly figure out what’s going on.
I loved it from beginning to end when I first read it. I liked the central character’s situation. It’s a complex story, but it’s a great story. I had directed Homebody/Kabul about 10 years ago, and I came to appreciate and love the brilliance of Tony Kushner’s language. That was very true for this play as well. The journey for directing has been a little tense. The play is long, almost 4 hours long, very long. Just the sheer size of it is intimidating. Ari [Roth] and Theater J are taking a giant chance on a play that most companies with similar resources won’t touch because of how big it is, how expensive it is, and the size of the cast (11). Even the larger regional theaters think twice about it. Ari has given us a little more time than normal to rehearse.
So the journey started with the actors about a month before I came out. I spent a lot of time putting together some thoughts about how to approach the language, their character, how to prepare. Pleading with them to do a lot of homework before I arrived. Which they did! Then when we went to work in the rehearsal room, since I had requested a strong assistant, we had double rehearsals. We had actors working with me and actors working with my assistant at the same time. That was 2-3 weeks where we really plowed this script into our brains. It was exhausting. But it has been rewarding, even a lot of fun. Sometimes luck is on your side when you cast a show. Every single one of the 11 actors is hugely motivated, smart as can be, very suited to their role, very committed, and very un-fussy. Not a diva in the bunch.
AK: With the play being so large and complex, how does that affect your vision for the play?
JV: The other three productions of I-Ho that have happened over a relatively long time (since 2008). Each of them were done in theaters that had significantly larger spaces than Theater J. Stages that have fly space, contraptions, elevator lifts where sets come in and out. The play takes place in a brownstone in Queens (and a few other locations), but within that brownstone, it takes place in the basement apartment, in the main room in the upstairs room, stair landing, on the outdoor stoop. So many places. So with these theaters that had greater resources, since the play is Tony Kushner’s homage to playwrights like Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets (and O’Neill and Williams), it’s been considered to be a reality-based drama, so they make reality-based scenery. And that’s fine.
When I read it and saw it at Berkeley [Repertory Theater], I thought, “Even if I had the ability to do all these big, big sets that float in and out, which is fun to watch and impressive, I don’t think I would do it. I think the play is all about the people.” I wanted to find something that was less real but more evocative. So my buddy, Micha Kachman, a professor who does a lot of design, we brought him in on the process to come up with the great solution for Theater J. He achieved something that was more sculptural and evocative. So when you asked about the vision for the play, many times it has to do with what your resources are. Sometimes being pragmatic about that determines the parameters. This time I think that it brought us to some really interesting decisions.
I’ve studied Tony Kushner and talked to him. He said once in an interview, “Theatre’s not real. Audiences are not easily fooled. In fact, they’re never fooled. In fact, the audience is in the theater watching Angels in America, they know that woman is in a harness and there’s ropes that are flying her around. There’s no real illusion there.” I felt the same way about I-Ho. I think that’s one of the things theater does best. If you want to make it feel real, go make a movie. I find the fact that we’re approaching it from a more expressionistic place much more interesting. That’s my own aesthetic, too.
AK: I know this will be tough for such a big production, but could you boil down the story for me?
JV: Gus, who is 72 in 2007, is and has been a lifelong communist. He believes strongly that the world has the potential to be a much better world. But that world is stuck in capitalism, trapped, and money is god, that’s a very bad thing. At 72, he believes he’s losing his memory, but he also knows he is no longer able to have an influence on the world. He’s spent his whole life in service to the Communist Party USA, to union organizing, to fighting for better wages. He was a longshoreman. He has 3 offspring.
So, we come to the point in his life where he has decided that, in a painless way, he wants to commit suicide. Sell his house and give the money to his kids. The three kids show up, and they ain’t having none of it! The play is about how he is trying to convince them to accept his decision to take his own life. It gets very complicated. His oldest son is gay, with a history of a relationship with a young hustler that he runs up to. His second child, his daughter who is most like him, has a relationship with a woman who is pregnant. But also has a relationship with the guy who lives in the basement, her ex husband. The third child, a son, is married with two kids. But he has his own issues with his father’s leanings in terms of his views on the world. All of this comes out. It’s a play about a father convincing his children about how important it is for them to not only accept his suicide, but support him in it.
AK: When you think about doing this play in DC, in this specific setting, will audiences here have a special relationship with this play?
JV: Audiences in DC are smart and particularly in Theater J because Ari Roth has a mission to do plays that are socially and politically challenging. DC audiences have a focus on politics. I think its great that we’re talking about the Communist Party USA. One of the historical characters that had a great impact on Gus is a relative of his, Vito Marcantonio, he was actually a representative in the House, and he had support from the Communist Party. He was very loved in his district because he fought for the poor.
AK: Is that something we’re losing today?
JV: Oh, God, yes, ask Bernie Sanders. Now that the pendulum has swung back (in the control of the Senate) the questions loom even larger. People say that the economy is growing. Okay, but growing for whom? For a very tiny percent of the population. Two thirds of the population make less money than they did ten years ago. Of course this play takes place in 2007, just before the big bust, but his despair would be the same today, if not more.
I don’t think this country cares about or wants to takes care of the poor. It doesn’t want to create a society where everybody is taken care of. Where labor is paid what its worth, and owns what it makes. Labor doesn’t own what it makes; labor doesn’t own anything. Even fighting for a crummy $10 minimum wage, which is still not enough, we can’t even get. This play talks about those specifics. So DC audiences will sit up and notice that. Frankly, most of the audiences are generally liberal-minded thinkers. I don’t know if there are lots of conservatives who go to theater. That might be a generalization, but it seems like that.
AK: Is there a problem of preaching to the choir in that context?
AK: What would you say to an audience member who is used to a 90 minute play with no intermission and is thinking about buying a ticket to I-Ho, but is intimidated by the length?
JV: I’d say give it a shot. The play is dense and rich. Back in the day, plays used to regularly be 3 hours with two intermissions. But I’ve directed a number of those 90 minute plays, believe me, and there’s so much more you can say with more time. It’s like a full meal instead of just a quick appetizer.
AK: When you approach this play, what do you see of yourself in it?
JV: A lot. I see my relationship with my father. I see my relationship with my partner of 38 years, I see that in the issues that the homosexual son is having. As an older gay man, I never came out to my dad. This son is out to his father, but this is the first time he really can have an open conversation with his dad. It’s the conversation I wish I could have had with my dad, who died about 30 years ago. So that’s very personal to me.
Many of the character’s and words come from Tony’s life and people he knows, and we have the same sort of vantage points being older gay men. I love this play. I think it has an enormous amount of psychology, the relationship between parent and adult children. Both my parents are gone now, and I’m older, so I identify with that. I don’t want to mislead you, this play isn’t as much about end-of-life issues, as much as it is about the political discussions of the characters. If I knew I had been diagnosed with some horrible mind-altering disease, that time was short for me to make decisions for myself. I think I would want to be able to make the decisions on my own before I went into that place where all of my decisions are gone. I think older audiences are really going to watch that.
AK: I think a good way to finish would be for you to list some adjectives that describe this play and your relationship with it. Just a little associative game.
JV: Primitive. Gutsy. Visceral. Demanding. Hysterical. Crazy. Uber-nuts. There’s a lot of craziness in this play. Like I said, there’s a lot of overlap. The longest sustained scene is 20 minutes where almost all of the dialogue is overlapped. So, how is the audience going to get all that? They’re not; they’ll pick and choose. But we’ve all experienced that. We go home for Thanksgiving, a reunion with our families, all in the big room in the house, 20 people and 10 conversations at once. We recognize that. So, recognition. Hope. Love. Lot of love.