Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tucson Weekly : Arts : Love With Strings

Tucson Weekly : Arts : Love With Strings:
Love With Strings

Strong casting and attractive characters lead Invisible Theatre's 'Natives' to success

Our heroine is turning 50. She's divorced; her daughters have grown up and gone off on their own adventures; she's got tenure; she's free and more or less secure: It's time for an adventure of her own.
She arranges to sublet her apartment and run off to Provence for a summer of novel-writing, wine-swilling, hill-hiking and whatever else may come.

What comes, though, is one daughter after another, returning home in crisis. My marriage is ending! My wedding is off! I'm having an affair with a bisexual sultan from Bali! I'm a lesbian!

It's the return of the natives who, disregarding Thomas Wolfe, believe they can come home again.
Our heroine's predicament--whether to stay home and coddle her daughters, or set off on her own journey--is the subject of the new Janet Neipris comedy Natives, on stage at Invisible Theatre. It's a gently funny play, consistently amusing without being stuffed with ha-ha one-liners. If, ultimately, the stakes don't seem that high--clearly, the girls could find a way to take care of themselves or each other without tying down their mother--the production succeeds through its strong casting and attractive characters.

The mother is named Viola, "after an instrument in the New York Philharmonic." Specifically, she'd been conceived after her parents had heard a Vivaldi viola concerto. Now, Viola doesn't mention this, but Vivaldi wrote for an odd instrument called the viola d'amore, which had an extra set of strings mounted underneath the conventional four; although they were never touched, they'd resonate sympathetically with the strings that were actually being bowed. Our Viola may be full of amore, but if her daughters represent the extra strings, they're not resonating all that sympathetically with Viola's melody. And, come to think of it, who's really playing whom?

The action takes place in Viola's living room, nicely appointed with African and Asian artifacts, classic novels, books about food and wine and foreign places, and the inevitable neat stack of National Geographic magazines. (James Blair and Susan Claassen share the set-design credit.) But does this room reflect who Viola truly is? The artifacts have been shipped home by daughter Emily, who trots around the globe studying folk customs and indulging in unlikely affairs. The food books, one suspects, have something to do with daughter Bo, who, with her husband, Gary, writes about food for a living, even though she no longer likes food, and is having doubts about Gary, too. The third and youngest daughter, Joanna, has a conventional and successful career in finance, but--to Viola's shock--her imminent wedding will be neither conventional nor successful.

They all come sulking home to Mom, towing along the men who remain in their lives: Bo's Gary, and Emily's paramour, a Balinese sultan who's actually a nice bisexual Jewish boy from the Bronx. According to Viola, they think that by coming home, they're returning to their roots, but from her point of view, it's more like a root canal.

The daughters haven't shared full information with Viola, but Viola has a secret of her own: Avery, the surprising man in her life. Or at least partly in her life. The extent of his commitment is open to question.
Neipris gives us real characters here, not just joke-spewing types, and with her help and that of the wise director, Gail Fitzhugh, the four actresses at the center of the play work especially well off each other.
As Viola, we have Claassen, whose focused energy and strong personality can make her a larger-than-life figure onstage. Here, she's as pointed as ever (particularly when she keeps her mouth shut and just looks at another actor, or the audience), but she channels her delivery into the wry neurotic-intellectual cadences of Woody Allen. She's always a Presence--after all, she's playing a Jewish mother--but not so much that she crowds her fellow performers off the stage.

The daughters, played by Jillian Courtney, Natalie Sutherland and Dallas Thomas, are not required to pass the play's two hours in the fits of hysteria that too often masquerade as comedy. True, there's some weeping, and some offstage vomiting (always with proper motivation), but they actually get to interact with each other in interesting, complicated ways. Their conversations are full of competitive bickering, but it's loving bickering. They may believe that they've been brought up to be rather strange women, but the relationships are clearly strong and positive, no matter what kind of nuttiness is happening in their lives at the moment.

Neipris has given her male characters less to do; consequently, they're less fleshed out, and Avery in particular (the appealing Burney Starks) is rather inscrutable. Eddie Young does well with the role of Gary, making him smug but not a complete asshole. Alex Garday is especially good as the Bronx/Balinese sultan, playing him as a sincere young man who believes himself to be perfectly normal; this is much funnier than if he'd opted for caricature. Luckily, that's the choice made all the way through this entertaining production.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

When 'Natives' come home | ®

When 'Natives' come home ®
Published: 02.28.2008

When 'Natives' come home
CHUCK GRAHAMTucson Citizen

Growing up is never easy. And apparently, it is never over. Invisible Theatre brings us the new play "Natives" by Janet Neipris, teasingly borrowed from Thomas Hardy's novel "The Return of the Native." Both explore the chaos of what can happen when your adult children come back unexpectedly to the native land where they grew up - ie., your house.

Of course, they still think it is also their house. So from your point of view, when does their house finally become your house? Will it ever completely become your house?

In the play's often hilarious dialogue tinged with the harsh bite of reality, one daughter reminds us, "home is that place where, when you go there, they have to take you in."

But in today's aggressive society of overachievers, everybody is determined to keep moving up. Nobody wants a home with roots. Nobody wants to stay in one place.

In our eagerness to acquire more wealth, upward mobility and a new job in a new location, we are becoming a nation of homeless overachievers. Like sharks, we have to keep moving just to stay alive.
Neipris, a playwright with grown children, isn't convinced roots are that important. The characters she creates in "Natives" are also native New Yorkers. They like living in apartments. They feel reassured by sidewalks. To these urban cliff dwellers, stability means rent control.

But growing up means being responsible. That's the part confusing Viola (Susan Claassen), looking appropriately harried in a punked-out wig full of spiky ends that reach for the sky. Viola spent her adult life being responsible. She raised three daughters who became independent women with their own rootless careers.

So in the summer of 1994, as "Natives" opens, Viola is ready to go rootless herself. She has sublet her Manhattan apartment and used the money to secure a country home in the south of France for a couple of months. She saw that TV show about Provence on PBS. She wants to enjoy that life filled with sunny pastoral afternoons, the glowing possibility of romance with cultured locals and a nice bottle of wine.
Claassen has fun portraying an empty-nester single mom afraid to trust her dreams. She has paid her debt to domesticity. She would just like to see the receipt stamped Paid In Full.
Just when she is about to start trusting the future, all three daughters come back home. Guilt trips stack up like airplanes over O'Hare.

Emily (Jillian Courtney) is back from a disastrous experience in Indonesia. Bo (Natalie Sutherland) - short for Barbara - is back with husband Gary in tow. They want to dump everything and start fresh. Joanna (Dallas Thomas) wants an equally abrupt make-over after canceling her wedding plans.
As the play is written Viola occasionally talks to the audience, adding juicy details to this summer of chaos. Much of the humor comes from watching Viola's reaction to all her daughters' outrageous predicaments. By the time Joanna has confessed she is a lesbian, Viola needs more than a handful of aspirin.

Don't worry, "Natives" holds much bigger surprises than that.
All three sisters are played by actors new to Invisible Theatre. Gail Fitzhugh directs them with her usual precision, keeping the humor from slipping into slapstick. All three respond by creating characters who feel like real people, even as their situations verge on the surreal.

After so much fanciful crisis, though, the ending is wrapped up a little too neatly. But by then, these four women have earned so much of our good will that we are pleased to know they will live happily ever - or at least until the family's next Thanksgiving dinner.

Grade: B

Friday, February 22, 2008

Daughters move in, and the laughs ensue | ®

Daughters move in, and the laughs ensue ®

Daughters move in, and the laughs ensue
By Kathleen Allen
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 02.22.2008

OK, here's a really scary statistic: According to the Census Bureau, more than 22 million adult children live with one or both parents.

That has the potential for disaster, as we learn in Janet Neipris' "Natives," which Invisible Theatre opened Wednesday.

Viola — named after an instrument in the New York Philharmonic — is the divorced matriarch of a family of three grown daughters who descend on her New York City brownstone the summer of 1994. They all pile into Viola's place about three weeks before she is set to head off for France for the summer. It's her big adventure to mark her 50th birthday and a new lease on life.

One daughter's marriage is breaking up; the other is pregnant by a bisexual man from the Bronx who lays claim to the title of "sultan," though they all suspect he didn't come by it honestly; and the third has just been dumped by her lover, who happens to be a woman. That's a bit of news to Vi, as we come to know Mom.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. Vi was just, well, surprised.
Gail Fitzhugh directed this comedy with a sense of timing and appreciation. She let the play breathe, which allowed the multitude of one-liners the room needed to land and get laughs.

But she got plenty of help from a cast headed by Susan Claassen as Violet. Claassen serves as the narrator, telling the story from the mother's perspective. She had the lioness' share of the lines and the laughs, and she knew how to deliver them. Claassen can massage an audience, drawing out a laugh with just a look or a shrug. She did that here, and the audience gave her the adoration she wanted.
She can be a powerful presence, sometimes to the detriment of the other actors sharing the stage with her.

But in this production she was a good mother, allowing those who played her daughters to shine, too.
And they did. Jillian Courtney, Natalie Sutherland and Dallas Thomas as her three off-spring had an easy rapport with one another and a naturally loving/contentious relationship with Viola. They each took their roles and owned them.

Filling out the cast were Eddie Young as Gary, Bo's food-loving husband who reads cookbooks in bed rather than paying attention to her; Alex Garday as Arnold, the sultan; and Burney Starks as Avery, Violet's surprise beau and the man she hopes to head to France with.

"Natives" is not brilliant theater. While it's funny, it doesn't really stick much beyond the final curtain.
You like these people, their relationships, but, ultimately, you really don't care much what happens to them.

But while you may forget why, you won't forget that you laughed. Plenty. This is a funny, well-produced play that makes for a jovial evening.

And if you are among the 22 million with grown kids at home, Lord knows you could use something to laugh about.

● Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.come or 573-4128.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Playwright: 'Natives' serious comedy | ®

Playwright: 'Natives' serious comedy ®

Published: 02.15.2008
Playwright: 'Natives' serious comedy
By Sherilyn Forrester


New York playwright Janet Neipris has three grown daughters.

So does Vi, the central character of her play "Natives," which the Invisible Theatre opens next week. In the play, Vi's three crisis-plagued daughters return home unceremoniously, expecting Vi to change her plans to sublet her apartment and spend a summer in France because of their needs to be back in their mother's nest.

Hmmm. Might this play be a bit autobiographical, we asked Neipris in a recent phone conversation?
"No, not really," she says laughing. "It certainly contains emotional truth. And some of the characters are suggested by friends or folks I'm acquainted with. But my children made me swear they and their lives would not be represented in this play.

"What I did want to explore was how some parents can turn their backs on their children when they don't meet their expectations. I've never understood that, but as an educator I see it all the time. I've seen it with friends. That's not to say that along the way my daughters have not taken some unexpected turns that have turned my hair purple, but you learn to accept their choices. We have to let everyone write their own lives."

A native Bostonian, Neipris began her writing life as a short-story writer in college at Tufts, where she was a recipient of a scholarship from the Boston Women's Scholarship Association. Some years later, when she was doing volunteer work for the association, they asked her to write a show as part of their 100th anniversary celebration. Although she knew little about writing a play, she figured she should give it a try. Elliot Norton, the influential theater critic of the Boston Globe, was the speaker at the anniversary event and was impressed enough with Neipris' show that he offered to mentor her. She worked with him for a year but still couldn't quite see herself as a playwright.

"My life didn't look like Lillian Hellman's — who was really my only model. I just thought being a playwright was an unrealistic idea. And then a good friend, a poet, asked me if I could do anything, what would I really like to do? Honestly, I had to say I wanted to write plays."

So she has, after studying with Israel Horowitz for two years at Brandeis University and earning a master's degree. She has had plays produced in major theaters across the country, including the Manhattan Theater Club, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and Center Stage in Baltimore. She is also a composer and lyricist and the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships. She has often written serious and political plays, including "A Small Delegation," which was produced in Beijing in 1995. She returns to China in May to teach 100 screenwriters selected as the best in China.

Neipris calls "Natives" a "serious comedy" that "is beginning its life in Arizona." The piece was workshopped in Phoenix a few years ago at the New Works Festival and was then produced by the Arizona Jewish Theatre company in 2006. It has yet to be published, although it has been optioned as a film.

Neipris hasn't quite finished mothering the play, which is one of the reasons she spent a week in Tucson when the play first went into rehearsal.

"I wanted to be there for a number of reasons. First, I have come to admire Susan Claassen over the years because she has guts and is committed to producing new plays. Then, since this is a new play I wanted to make sure it was getting off on a good footing. I really want it to be published, and good reviews will help that. And I really just love the regional theaters. They are the ones with real courage and staying power. It's where the real energy is. And I want to support that."
So did she like what she saw?

"The folks at IT were wonderful. It was a little like falling in love. When I walked into the first rehearsal, I could tell immediately which actor was playing which character — each was the perfect embodiment. And I was on the floor — when they started the read-through they were so funny. And Susan has such humanity — she is so believable as Vi."

Neipris, who has also had a distinguished career as an educator, chairing the dramatic-writing department at NYU for 15 years and currently co-chairing the graduate studies program there, has written a book, "To Be a Playwright" (Theatre Arts Books, $17.95) that is used widely in colleges as a text for writing programs.

"Writing is such a process of discovery. It's a little like going through customs. You tell the guy, I have apples and oranges. And when he takes a look, he says, 'Yeah, but you also have pears and bananas.' Although the script was in very good shape, it's still evolving. Susan called just last week with some questions.

"I think the willingness to collaborate is the mark of being solid as a writer."

Neipris will be in Tucson for the preview and the opening night of "Natives." There will be a chance for audience members to ask questions or give feedback after the preview performance on Tuesday.
Will she be accompanied by her daughters?

"Oh, no. I deliberately did not invite them," she laughs.

• Presented by: The Invisible Theatre.
• Playwright: Janet Neipris.
• Director: Gail Fitzhugh.
• When: Preview is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday; regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through March 9.
• Where: The Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.
• Tickets: $16-$25.
• Good deal: Available tickets are half price 30 minutes prior to show time.
• Information: 882-9721.
• Cast: Susan Claassen, Jillian Courtney, Alex Garday, Burney Starks, Natalie Sutherland, Dallas Thomas.
• Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.
• Et cetera: Playwright Janet Neipris will answer questions after the preview performance on Tuesday.
● Sherilyn Forrester is a Tucson based freelance writer.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tucson Weekly : Arts : Comedy That's Real

Tucson Weekly : Arts : Comedy That's Real

Comedy That's Real
Janet Neipris' mother-daughter play 'Natives' opens at Invisible Theatre

Janet Neipris got a late start as a playwright--she was already raising three kids--and she worried that she'd be at a disadvantage.
"I didn't want to write comedies," she says. "I thought that as a woman, I'd be taken as a lightweight writer."

So she wrote serious plays, political plays, including one inspired by three months she'd spent teaching in China in 1988; authorities shut down a production in China after a single performance. (They've at least given the OK for another production this May.)

And yet, humor had often been an element in her work, so ultimately, she felt compelled to let it out in full force. "I decided that if I was going to write a comedy," she says, "I'd write the best one I could." It would have to be a play based on character, she says, not zingers. "Comedy has to be real," she says. "I don't like jokes."

The result was Natives, which Invisible Theatre will open next week. Neipris isn't exactly new to IT; the company presented two of her very early plays exactly 30 seasons ago.

Natives concerns a middle-aged divorcée (played by Susan Claassen) who has sublet her apartment in anticipation of a romantic summer abroad. But one by one, her three troubled grown daughters come home, intending to stay. What's a mother to do?

Natives was produced at the Arizona Jewish Theatre in Phoenix two years ago, but Neipris insists that the only Jewish thing about it is the first line: "I'm a mother, and I admit it--I'm guilty."

Neipris has three daughters of her own, all of whom have had, shall we say, adventurous lives, but the playwright insists that Natives is not autobiographical: "Nothing in it is true, but everything is real."
Early on, Neipris learned how to be a playwright and a parent simultaneously from her mentor, Israel Horovitz (whose My Old Lady IT produced in 2005). "He was dragging his kids around everywhere," Neipris recalls. "I was afraid I was getting in too late, but he was the model for me; he showed me that you can have a family, you can teach, and you can be creative in your profession all your life."

Horovitz, whom Neipris calls "a master of situation," also warned her not to set a play in a kitchen. "He called it 'kitchen-sink drama,'" she says. So Neipris has assiduously placed her plays in a museum, in a factory, in China, in South Africa--as far as possible from the family kitchen. But if any part of Natives takes place in the mother's apartment, Neipris may be getting dangerously close. After all, with this play, she's already failed in her determination to stay out of comedy.

"Yes, it's a comedy," she admits, "but it's serious in what I'm attempting to do. I'm very serious about my family, but where does a mother draw the line?" Neipris reveals that she once skipped the science fair at her daughter's school to go on a date to the opera. However disappointed the girl may have been, it turned out to be a good decision for Neipris: She later married the man who took her to the opera.

Music, it turns out, is no mere incidental interest. Neipris has written scores for plays (but never for her own), as well as two musicals (one of which was what got her into the writing program at Brandeis). "I love to write music more than words," she says. "Words are cerebral; music is a direct hit to the heart."
Neipris is as serious about her career as she is about her family. She worked hard, got her plays produced all around the country, taught playwriting in Europe, Asia and Africa, and eventually was asked to create and chair the graduate playwriting and screenwriting department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She's the author of a book called simply To Be a Playwright.
So what's her most essential advice to budding playwrights? "Shut up and stop complaining."

Spoken like a true mother.