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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Anne Cullimore Decker, left, Brenda Sue Cowley and Joe Cronin in Salt Lake Acting Company's "Madagascar."

When co-producers Nancy Borgenicht and Allen Nevins first approached New York-based playwright J.T. Rogers about a newly commissioned work for Salt Lake Acting Company, they gave him three words of advice: "Make it weird."

OK, maybe not "Science Fiction Theater" weird, but certainly not mainstream Utah.

So, this week, the company is staging the world premiere of "Madagascar," by the playwright whose previous works showcased by SLAC include "Seeing the Elephant" (2002) and "White People" (during the 2000-01 season).

Rogers is also the playwright-in-residence at SLAC. For "Madagascar," he was awarded a 2004 playwriting fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Back when Borgenicht and Nevins first talked to Rogers about the script that eventually evolved into "Madagascar," Rogers also hoped that one particular Salt Lake actress would be available for the production — Anne Cullimore Decker, who headed the cast for "Seeing the Elephant." He got his wish.

During a joint interview with his longtime director Gus Reyes, Rogers said that "Madagascar" is probably not as "weird" as that term suggests.

Reyes — who went to college with Rogers, and who has directed many of his plays — said that while "Madagascar" is "not remotely weird, it's not conventional, either." It's about real people and real ideas.

The three central characters are an American family in Rome struggling with the mysterious disappearance of a fourth, unseen, character. All three are in the same hotel room, but in different periods of time.

"It's about memory and loss and inactions — what we don't do in life," said Rogers, "and Gus has captured the fluidity of the play, following three stories at once."

Brenda Sue Cowley plays June, a young woman who works as a tour guide of Rome's ancient ruins.

Decker plays Lilian, her wealthy and elegant jet-setting mother.

Joe Cronin, a Portland, Ore.-based actor who has performed many seasons with the Utah Shakespearean Festival, is making his SLAC debut as Nathan, a rumpled university economist and best friend of Lilian's famous, deceased husband.

Rogers notes that once patrons get into the production they will "realize what they're watching are three strands of the same story." He added that "the only weird thing is the actors coming in and out of different realities. 'Seeing the Elephant' was more 'out there.'

"Think of it as a modern American Greek tragedy. It's filled with a lot of ideas, and a lot of humor and sadness. It's a strong and wonderful piece."

"Madagascar" touches on the consequences of the actions people take — or don't take — and the ripple effect on others in ways that are unforeseen.

Rogers was selected as one of 10 U.S. playwrights to receive a National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group residency for 2004-05. Regionally, his works have been seen at the Philadelphia Theatre Co., the New Theatre of Miami, New Actors Union Theatre (Moscow), and the Road Theatre (Los Angeles). A resident of Brooklyn, he spent three years on the faculty at New York University, teaching conflict resolution through drama in at-risk junior high schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

When he first came to Salt Lake City two years ago, Reyes was unaware of SLAC's dedication to the local talent pool. He was looking at bringing actors in from New York City.

He said that auditions are primarily "a matter of finding the right people. The really good ones here are working and busy, unlike New York, where there is an endless supply of talent."

But Reyes has been pleasantly surprised by the local talent. "During an audition, within seconds you just know who is right for a role."

Anne Cullimore Decker was a given going into "Madagascar," as Rogers and Reyes had worked with her before. But Cronin, who came highly recommended by Decker after working with him this past summer in Cedar City, and Crowley, just fit right in.

"It's rare to find a theater that seems like home," said Rogers. "Salt Lake Acting Company protects the creative people and gives you a space to play, and gives you that creative freedom."

Free reading Dec. 6

SLAC'S new "Play Sounding" reading during the run of "Madagascar" will be Kurt Proctor's "Roundup," on Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m. The comic drama involves four suburban, would-be cowboy poets gathered in a campground on the eve of an annual poetry roundup. The dream of the West collides with the reality of the 21st century. Admission is free.

If you go . . .

What: "Madagascar"

Where: Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North

When: Tuesday through Dec. 12

How much: $13-$33.50

Phone: 363-7522 or 355-2788

Web site: www.saltlakeactingcompany.org

Also: Free post-play panel discussion, Nov. 21, 4 p.m.

E-mail: [email protected]