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This year, one of New York's theatrical success stories had one of the oddest titles in recent memory: Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, by Christopher Durang.
Torture (as we'll shorten it here) had its sold-out, critically acclaimed run at Manhattan's Public Theater extended twice. The New York Times dubbed the political satire "Durang's funniest play." And now, only about six months after its original run ended, Madison's Forward Theater Company is taking a swing at a play that promises to be as timely as it is wacky and outrageous. It is being staged in Overture Center's Playhouse from Dec. 30 through Jan. 17.
After a young woman marries a man while drunk, she's now worried he might be a terrorist. Her father is an angry right-winger, and her mother is a daffy woman who finds the theater a pleasing escape. But is Zamir really a terrorist? And what is Felicity's father, who may be part of a shadow government, willing to do about it?
The play, said Durang in a phone interview from his Pennsylvania home, "is triggered, frankly, by living through the Bush eight years, though I don't mention Bush or Cheney specifically. When I look back on the 1950s and even '60s, the country seems so polarized now [by comparison]. The red state vs. blue state [mentality] and what those beliefs are was very much informing my play. It's a comedy, but I think the disagreements in the country are real and a bit alarming."
To those first encountering Durang, such political talk may sound like the makings of humorless agitprop - yet Durang's style is anything but. Nearly 25 years ago, Frank Rich of The New York Times commented on "his special knack for wrapping life's horrors in the primary colors of absurdist comedy." More recently in the Times, Charles Isherwood remarked on "Mr. Durang's trademark blend of zany humor and grotesquerie."
Although both Rich and Isherwood were commenting on The Marriage of Bette and Boo, those descriptions hold true for Torture as well. While there are scenes of torture (or are we supposed to say "enhanced interrogation techniques" now?), there is also wild, off-the-wall humor.
Says Forward Theater's artistic director, Jennifer Uphoff Gray, who helms this production, "It's tremendously funny, and it has a profoundly hopeful ending that really works."
Now 60, Durang has enjoyed a long and successful career in theater. For the last 15 years, he has co-directed the playwriting program at the Juilliard School with Marsha Norman (whose 'night, Mother won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama). Durang himself was a finalist for the Pulitzer in Drama in 2006 for Miss Witherspoon, a dark comedy about suicide and the afterlife. In 1978 - at the enviable age of 29 - Durang nabbed a Tony nomination for Best Book of a Musical for A History of the American Film.
The New Jersey native earned a bachelor's in English from Harvard and went on to the Yale School of Drama's M.F.A. program in playwriting. At Yale, he was classmates with the likes of Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and the late Wendy Wasserstein, a personal friend.
The playwright's formative years were difficult. His father, an architect, was an alcoholic; Durang's mother endured three stillborn pregnancies after his birth. He remained an only child, and his parents divorced when he was 19.
The Marriage of Bette and Boo, his most autobiographical play, takes on many of these troubling themes. Other topics running through his work include child abuse, homosexuality and Roman Catholicism (the faith he was raised in). Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, his satire about a demonic nun at a Catholic school, won an Obie Award in 1980.
When he's not teaching in New York or writing at his home in Bucks County, Pa. (where the core part of his house dates to 1749), he sees as much theater as possible - often the work of current and former students - and blogs occasionally for the Huffington Post (find him at www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-durang).
His blog posts are often political. In a Thanksgiving entry, he expressed disappointment with President Obama, for whom he canvassed door-to-door during election season. From Afghanistan and the bailouts to health care reform and gay issues, he frets that Obama is not living up to his early promise.
A self-described "disappointed idealist," Durang blogged of Obama's handling of gay issues: "I find his 'I'll stand up for your rights soon, or next week, or in two years' to be tiring and unconvincing."
Yet when asked about his blog, Durang hedges just a little: "I still think he's about a million times better than the previous administration, and I feel a little mixed about having spoken negatively about him. Who knows? Maybe if he were more bold, he'd split the country in half too much."
And, of course, those red-state/blue-state tensions are at the heart of Torture. Where's the line between vigilance and paranoia? And how far can we go in defense of our own safety?
Forward director Gray is ready to tackle the provocative questions Torture poses: "What this play asks of everyone in the audience is, what responsibility do we each have for the society we live in and the government that represents us? It's not asked in a way that's meant to make you feel guilty, but to make us feel hopeful in that we do have responsibility and we do have power to make it be different."
Bringing Madison the best of the new
Torture's cast includes many faces familiar to Wisconsin theatergoers. Two core company members of Spring Green's American Players Theatre (APT), Sarah Day and Colleen Madden, have been cast.
"What's thrilling is that our first choices for every role took the part, even though we can't pay as much as other professional theaters in the region," says Gray. "That will take time. But people have been so keen to get Forward launched and work on this terrific play."
Sarah Day is also a member of Forward's advisory company, which provides artistic oversight to the fledgling company (Forward was founded in March 2009).
APT audiences may also recognize Leia Espericueta as Felicity, the young woman married to possible terrorist Zamir. Espericueta graduated from the UW-Madison's MFA program in acting earlier this year. She spent the summer as a member of APT's apprentice company, performing in two Shakespeare plays and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.
Day and Milwaukee actor Norman Moses play Felicity's parents. While Moses performed in numerous Madison Repertory Theatre productions in the 1990s, most of his recent work has been on Milwaukee stages. Says Gray, "He's worked professionally for about 35 years, and he's a very talented comic actor."
Rounding out the cast are Richard Ganoung and Michael Herold, both members of Forward's advisory company and cast members from its inaugural production (November's All About Eve), and Chicago actor Juan Gabriel Ruiz.
Ruiz, who plays Zamir, is the lone non-Wisconsinite in the production. Says Gray, "We did look in Madison and Milwaukee, but we couldn't find the right actor. Madison audiences will really take to [Ruiz]; he's got a wonderful balance of charm and threat."
The decision to use mostly Wisconsin actors is a reflection of Forward's mission as a self-described "home base for Wisconsin theater professionals that will expand the economic and cultural life of the greater Madison area."
"There are wonderful actors who live right in this area," says Gray. "We can use them, and we don't have to house them, which allows us to be fiscally responsible. Plus, they're connected to our community. They have roots and fans here."
Given the juicy, topical nature of the play, there will be talkbacks following each performance. They'll be facilitated by an actor or two, a member of the play's production team and, after certain shows, guest experts such as UW professors.
Gray's admiration for Durang's work is longstanding. She acted in a Durang play while attending their shared alma mater, Harvard, and she previously directed a Durang play in New York, where she spent most of her career before returning to her hometown of Madison four and a half years ago.
While Durang is a major figure in contemporary theater, his plays have not been produced in Madison frequently. (Mercury Players staged Betty's Summer Vacation in fall 2001, but there seems to have been no Durang on local stages since then.)
Forward's production of Torture - only the third in the country, after the Manhattan premiere and a Florida production - is quite a coup for a start-up company in the Midwest. Says Gray, "A lot of times it can take a while for major new plays to make it here. If you're really into contemporary theater, you have to go to New York or Chicago."
The director wants to change that situation. "We're working hard to bring the best of the new to Madison."
Relevant, cathartic - and funny
Christopher Durang was disappointed to hear of Madison Repertory Theatre's closing. While the city has a wide array of community theater companies, Madison Rep was the capital's only professional theater.
Says Durang, "As a playwright, I'm always concerned to hear of a theater closing. I thought the fact that Forward was beginning to fill that void was a positive thing to do, and I hope that goes well."
He knows that these can be tough times for theater, particularly in terms of attracting a younger audience. "When I was in my 20s, it was my parents' generation - the World War II generation - that was a big part of who went to the theater. There was a certain steady audience for the theater, and that audience is dying, and it's not being replenished in the same way. I don't think the baby boomers - and I am one - go to the theater as much as their parents did."
Yet perhaps plays such as Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them will find an all-ages audience driven not so much by habitual theater-going as by an attraction to its political subject matter and loony satire.
As Gray says, Durang's latest is "relevant to the world we live in and the things that are important to Madisonians. Yet instead of just preaching to the choir or haranguing the audience, it's funny and cathartic."