Story posted August 16, 2011
It was the kind of meeting too perfect to be scripted. Bowdoin Theater and Dance Department Chair Roger Bechtel had just ordered a work by Adriano Shaplin, one of the sharpest new playwrights working in theater. Two days later, he found himself "through sheer happenstance" to be seated across from the playwright at a friend's dinner party in Philadelphia.
"I thought he was brilliant," says Bechtel. "We ended up having a four hour conversation. I only hoped the writing held up to the playwright himself."
It most certainly did. Now, Bechtel is continuing their lively conversation by mounting a highly textured production of Shaplin's Switch Triptych, at Portland Stage Company's Studio Theater, Aug. 19-28, 2011.
The multimedia production features a triptych of huge video monitors that play period footage of labor strikes, suffrage movements, and live video and vocal wave-forms of the actors onstage.
Set in 1919, the play features three women switchboard operators in New York City and their two male managers, struggling as automation threatens to render them obsolete. At the center of the piece, and the stage, is Lucille (Janice Gardner), a mouthy, veteran operator who delivers boozy paeans to telephony, while railing against mechanization and humanity itself. She is the tough, prowling soul of immigrant New York, a one-woman Greek chorus:
"Who'll take a train when all you need is a call-box?" she purrs, swilling hooch. "And what place is worth dragging your body apart from lovely New York City? Forget mother back in Kansas, she'll have to settle for a phone call. God forgive us we clobbered correspondence. And nobody misses it!
"Be glad they don't put phones on the front lines. They'd never get any killing done and we'd suffer daily the details of sock rot."
A younger operator, Philippa (Sammie Francis '09) blunders along in Lucille's shadow, while new employee June (played by Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Theater Abigail Killeen) struggles vainly to organize a walkout:
"You never stood for a man or an idea that wasn't your own," she rails at her nemesis, Lucille. "You never begged. You never took your shoes off in public.... You wouldn't lend your hand, your name or your voice in solidarity with your fellow man? You died alone then? Is that how this all turns out for you? Lovely. You stood alone Miss."
Shaplin's language is like a John Cage composition, rhythmically explosive and lyrical, its meaning snapping into crude focus only to dissolve into inuendo. Bechtel plays with its dynamics like a master conductor, bringing out subtle shifts of allegiance and power among the characters.
Bechtel likens Shaplin's work to Bertolt Brecht: "Not since Brecht has someone combined this kind of poetic sensibility with sharp political understanding," he says, adding: "And the actors are loving it; he's created these great characters who are full and rich and three-dimensional."
Switch Triptych marks the New England debut of the award-winning Chicago theater companyBig Picture Group. The company, which Bechtel co-directs, is known for its distinctive multimedia aesthetic that melds technology and performance as a lens through which the often obscure dynamics of contemporary life might be brought into focus.
Other cast members include Hal Cohen as the mediating manager Truman, and Bowdoin alum Khalil LeSaldo '11 as Andrew, his ambitious underling.
Switch Triptych previews at 7 p.m. on Aug. 18 and opens Aug. 19. The show runs Thursdays through Saturday at 7 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. For tickets or information, call: 207-751-8815.