If "Napoleon's China" is as bright and breezy as the two collaborating playwrights, theatergoers attending Salt Lake Acting Company's world premiere of the brand new comedy should be in for a real treat.
In a pair of back-to-back telephone interviews (seasoned writer Sherry Kramer calling from Iowa City, Iowa, and novice playwright Ann Haskell in Durham, N.C.) the two authors were very, very funny.How they initially got together - at a "fat farm" spa in Durham ("the diet program capital of the world") - would be fodder for a stage comedy all by itself.
Kramer and Haskell began writing the play in 1993 and completed it the next year. During that time it evolved from a post-modern comedy called "Naked Without Gestures" into the romantic comedy that SLAC audiences will see for the first time next week.
"It's very contemporary," said Kramer. "It certainly has its deeper and `meaningful' parts, but it is not a sit-com and it's not a `dark' comedy . . . it's more of a `medium' comedy."
Midway through the writing process, Haskell suggested adding music to the production.
They were about 90 pages into the script. By this time, Kramer had returned to Iowa and the collaboration had shifted into long-distance communication. Haskell was visiting a Durham beauty salon. Musician/singer/composer Rebecca Newton was humming in an adjacent booth.
"She had the voice of an angel," Haskell exclaims.
It turned out that Newton was the lead singer of the most popular bar band in Durham.
Haskell quickly called Kramer and announced, "The play must be a `sort of' musical. Music is the last art form that conveys pure emotion - you taught me that. We have to have it!"
Newton's music, Haskell said, is a combination of 1950s, blues and country.
"It's not saccharine and sweet, but music that will touch everybody," she noted.
"It's really a play with songs. The music functions as a Greek chorus," Kramer further explained. "Sometimes it just comments or encourages action and sometimes it's just for the audience's enjoyment or as an enhancer of moods and emotions."
- GIST OF THE PLOT: There are just three characters: a mosaic fanatic by the name of Claire Randolph, played by former Utah stand-up comic Shaz Bennett; historian Shepard Levy, played by Dan Larrinaga; and Pinky, the singer, played by Jeanette Puhich, last seen in "Gunmetal Blues."
Claire and Shep live across the hallway from each other. Claire is systematically covering every available space in her apartment with mosaics created from pieces of broken china and porcelain knick-knacks. Shattered plates, cups and saucers become jaggedly artful covering for chairs, tables and TV sets, as Claire remakes her world with pieces of the past.
Shep, on the other hand, gathers and preserves the past in it's original, pristine form. He believes that preserving the intrinsic value of the past is the only way one can hope to understand the present and anticipate the future.
Philosophically, Claire and Shep couldn't be further apart, but they've managed to develop an uneasy kind of relationship. While Claire is in love with Shep, he finds her irritating and irrational.
Then there's Pinky, a singer whose band is featured on WPNK Radio - the All-Pinky station Shep listens to religiously. Pinky acts as chorus, muse and cupid.
Will "Napoleon's China" fly in Salt Lake? New, unknown works are always risky, but Salt Lake Acting Company has had a good track record in premiering new plays.
Robin Wilks-Dunn, a former assistant professor of theater at Weber State University who works for the Sundance Film Festival, is making her SLAC directorial debut with "Napoleon's China."
Jenny Floor, who was sound engineer for "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches," is "the band" and musical director for the play.
Kevin Myhre has designed the set and costumes.
- PERFORMANCES: Discounted previews ($12.50) will be Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Friday at 8 p.m.
Regular performances begin Saturday, April 27, and continue through May 19.
Performance times are 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays in SLAC's Chapel Theatre. Tickets are $16.50 (plus ArtTix handling fee). There is also a $10 "student rush" ticket one-half hour prior to curtain (depending on available seating). For reservations contact ArtTix at 355-2787 or stop at ArtTix outlets at the Capitol Theatre and selected Albertsons supermarkets.
- A NOTE ABOUT THE CHINA: Playwright Haskell does, indeed, own a set of Napoleon's china. Actually it's a tea service collection the legendary French leader took with him when he was exiled to Elba.
It was given to Haskell's family several generations back by Lafayette and, at one time, had been used by relatives in Altar Guild teas. Haskell inherited the china from her father.
The china is currently on loan to a Hudson Valley museum that used to be Haskell's ancestral home. (Her great-great-grandfather is renowned landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church, one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of New York.)
Rumors aside, tickets ARE available for Salt Lake Acting Company's remaining performances of "Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika" and reprise of "Part One: Millennium Approaches." Call 355-2787 (ArtTix).