In 2009, a 15-year-boy was doused with rubbing alcohol by four middle school classmates, who lit him on fire in a heinous tragedy that rocked a South Florida community.
A few years later, playwright Joe Calarco was commissioned by the Mosaic Theatre in Plantation, Fla., to pen a play about the events, though he wasn’t sure it was something he wanted to do.
“It needed to be written and produced in a year, which was really fast, but I wasn’t interested in doing documentary theatre because I couldn’t come down and interview people and I didn’t want to put words in mouths of people who actually exist,” he says. “And I didn’t want to write a play about bullying. But I thought if we as a country go around the world bullying, why are we so shocked when it happens horrifically in our backyard.”
It was that realization that made Calarco understand what the play could be and A Measure of Cruelty was born. The show had a successful seven week run. Calarco was directing a play at the time and didn’t get the chance to see it. He put it in his desk drawer with thoughts of revisiting it again in the future.
Two years ago, Calarco was approached about turning the play into a screenplay, and last year, the 4615 Theatre Company became interested in staging it.
A Measure of Cruelty opens January 18, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
“I thought it would be interesting to implement some of the changes I was making for the screenplay,” he says. “Obviously, it’s a different form of writing, but there were some plot things and character things that developed, and questions I thought I could tackle by doing it again as a play.”
A Measure of Cruelty, which is is set in a bar, will be presented on location in Bethesda’s legendary Harp and Fiddle pub for an extremely short run – four performances only – from January 18 to 26.
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Calarco, who will direct the immersive event at the 33-year-old pub, shares that audience members will be seated throughout the venue, including near the 360-degree bar and surrounding tables, as the action encompasses all of the sprawling space.
“Even though this is an immersive experience because they’re in the bar, I consider it more of a site-specific production. Immersive to me is when you’re actually in the play itself and the actors engage with you,” he says. “In this, there’s a bunch of high-tops and no one will be sitting at the bar so it doesn’t look like the actors are ignoring them. It should be more that they are eavesdropping on the play. The idea is that they are flies on the wall and watch this intense play happen.”
He explains that the story examines the uniquely American relationship to masculinity and violence, with a deft balance of tenderness and unrelenting honesty. The play follows Buddy, a recently returned veteran from the war in Afghanistan, who comes to work in his father’s bar while he nurses wounds both physical and psychic. When ghosts of the past pop up, the two must relive some demons.
“I’ve made many changes since it first ran. The end is very different, for one,” he says. “It’s a very emotional and at times violent play, and I think the energy of it will be very exciting and jarring in this space. There’s something about the reality of being enclosed in the room with them—it’s very high stakes and the audience is sort of trapped with them.”
Calarco has directed in the D.C.area since the ’90s, working at Signature Theatre as Resident Director of New Work for five years before leaving in May. He traveled around the country for the summer and moved into an apartment in New York this September.
“We had been talking about this idea even before I made the decision to leave for New York, and I’m back to freelancing, so I’ll go wherever,” Calarco says. “Plus, I love this theater company [4615 Theatre Company] very much. It reminds me of my early days in New York.”
Originally, he wasn’t going to direct, but since he had never been in the room with actors talking about the play, he thought it would be a helpful for the future of the script.
“The play has a kind of kinetic energy to it,” he says. “I wanted to write the play as an old-school, guys in the bar in a cage match in a way emotionally, really going at it, learning about each other and themselves. There’s a different intensity and it feels more real because the audience is in the space they are in.”
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