'Lost At Sea,' Found in Rep :: Allison Choat on Directing 'Shipwrecked!' and 'Twelfth Night'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday November 20, 2018

We all feel a bit lost at sea sometimes, but for Moonbox Productions that's not necessarily a bad thing, In fact, "Lost At Sea" is the collective title for the two shows they are about to present in repertory: Shakespeare's comedy "Twelfth Night" and Donald Margulies' "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment."

In "Twelfth Night," fraternal twins Viola and Sebastian wash up on a foreign shore, each believing the other to have perished when their ship went down in a terrifying storm. Viola disguises herself as a young man and becomes the servant of a nobleman, while Sebastian falls in with the seafaring Antonio. This being Shakespeare, the romantic cross-currents pull every which way before the inevitable happy ending.

Margulies based "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment" on the wild adventure stories of a real life Swiss writer Louis de Rougemont, whose tales about three decades lived among Aborigines down under excited audiences and invited skepticism.

EDGE had the pleasure of hearing about the productions, which share the same cast, from Allison Choat, who is directing both and who pondered questions of identity, community, and the ongoing role of theater in out fast-forward world

EDGE: Other than the plot device of being shipwrecked, what makes this particular pair of plays a good fit with each other in terms of presenting them in repertory?

Allison Choat: Obviously there's the angle of, "Our boat crashed; here we are." But I think the thing that ties them together mostly in my mind are the questions they raise about identity. When you are sort of set adrift from the things that you typically use to define yourself, and you have to create yourself anew, how do you go about doing that when all those landmarks and markers that you associate with your former self and your former life are gone? And, of course, that very much happens for Viola [in "Twelfth Night."] She's on an unfamiliar shore, and in danger. She has to come up with a way to keep herself safe, so she assumes the identity of a man. She learns a great deal about herself and, I think, her place in the world, in so doing.

And "Shipwrecked!" is in many ways about the creation itself, in that Louis de Rougemont sets out on a fantastic adventure. In doing so, he finds out who he is, and what he values, and he's defined by it when he returns to England. He was a celebrity because of those adventures. But he also has everything that he's done called into question, and we begin to wonder if anything that happened to him is really true. Then the way that he defines himself and the way that he constructs himself become yet more of an invention, yet more of a construction, and the question itself becomes yet muddier and more complex.

EDGE: What makes these plays a good fit with Moonbox Productions?

Allison Choat: These shows in general, and this kind of production, are something that I've wanted to do for a really, really long time because I think that — as a lighting designer I worked with once said — "Every play that you do is a musical." You can often end up with underscoring, or incidental music, or that kind of thing.

Many of the productions we do have an interstitial or collaborative feel where we work in a lot of different kinds of media. With both these shows, as similar as they were, I really wanted to be able to use the same group of storytellers, and in the notes for "Shipwrecked!" [playwright] Donald Margulies talks about how he'd like the play to be done in a very lean, home-made, elegant sort of pageant wagon style. He really wants us to be able to see the theater that he made, and part of the magic is being able to ask the audience to use their imagination to join us on that journey. That really captured my fancy, and I began to think more and more about stripping away the special effects and the flash from production and telling a story in a way that is really driven by how we as audience member and we as playmakers choose to interpret it.

It became more and more exciting to me, and I was able to gather together this group of performers that I knew and trusted. Over the past year we've worked together, just workshopping it, asking, "Can we even do this, and tell this story this way?" We played with puppets, we played with instruments, we did physical theater and dynamic storytelling. Every month we would get together and pick through the text — and it worked! So, we thought "Let's go ahead and do it!"

EDGE: You have the same cast working on both shows, and you are directing both productions. Do you find that working on these two plays at the same time you are getting inspirations and insights in one play that you can then bring into what you're doing with the other one?

Allison Choat: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think that's something that we talk about as a repertory company pretty frequently. We'll be in the middle of rehearsing one show and we'll say, "Gosh, this reminds me of this thing that happens in 'Shipwrecked!,' or 'this happens in 'Twelfth Night.' " Even from a thematic point of view, and looking at the raw mechanics of storytelling — I mean, all of our Foley effects [sound effects] are being produced live, so there was an example of an umbrella that was being used in "Twelfth Night" when it begins to rain and Orsino opens an umbrella. We were looking for a sound effect in "Shipwrecked!" when Mother is opening the curtains for Louis when he's a little boy, and one of the actors realized that the sound of rapidly opening umbrellas is more or less exactly the sound curtains being drawn apart. So we grabbed the "Twelfth Night" umbrella, and that became the sound of the curtain.

There have been a lot of little ways that [the plays influence each other], sometimes through serendipity and sometimes quite deliberately. We've tried to interweave the two productions, since they're being played on sets that are very similar, with minimal changeover, and at times there are thematic or visual or musical elements that are crossing over from show to show. We hope audience members who see both shows will have a chance to recognize and enjoy [those shared elements]. But at the same time, we do acknowledge they are different shows. They have their own tone and their own style; they have their own unique idioms. So I think those things are more "Easter eggs," like they used to have on DVDs — when the DVD menu would have a surprise [hidden away]. That's how I think of them. They're there if you want to hunt for them, and certainly the broader strokes in the visual presentation and the theme are there, whether you look for them or not. It's something that we like when it happens, and we find it interesting and fruitful, but it's not something we tried to force.

EDGE: When you were putting these two shows together — one of the from 2007, the other from 1602 —

[Laughter]

EDGE: — did you find that you had to do much updating to "Twelfth Night" that you might not necessarily have had to do for "Shipwrecked?"

Allison Choat: We were concerned, with "Twelfth Night," about making the play sort of clean and flowing pretty freely, because "Shipwrecked!" is a shorter show — it's a one-act show, and "Twelfth Night" is, in its conception, a five-act show. I didn't want people who saw both productions to come away feeling radically short-changed if they saw "Twelfth Night" first, or extremely sick in the legs if they'd seen "Shipwrecked!" first. So, we did do some cutting to "Twelfth Night" to try and streamline it.

But "Shipwrecked," though it was written in 2007, is set in 1860 — 1898, and it has a very fanciful tone that I think is very timeless. And in creating the world for "Twelfth Night," everybody was asking, "When are we setting it?" And I said, "We are setting it in a world and a time where pants are the most important gender signifier."

[Laughter]

Allison Choat: That's what I can tell you about the world of "Twelfth Night": If you are wearing pants, you are a man. That sort of rules out everything past 1920. And we ended up sort of setting it in a time period that's more or less to congruent to where "Shipwrecked!" is set, to where elements of the costumes are drawn from the 19th Century, a little bit of the early 20th century, and that's the feeling that we've gone for. But, naturally, the actors are still delivering Shakespeare's text — with a few trims for clarity. I don't feel sacrilegious cutting Shakespeare. There are parts you don't need to move the story forward.

EDGE: Given that there's a lot of live music, singing, and sound effects being performed by the cast, and also given your background in music, is musicality going to be an emphasis in these productions?

Allison Choat: I think that's certainly true to an extent, but I think that's not the only element to these plays. Certainly, "Twelfth Night" is full of songs, and we're singing those songs; "Twelfth Night" does have a musical feel. It's not a traditional musical in the sense that people burst into song about their feelings, or that the songs move the plot forward. They're very — to use a film term — they're very diegetic. Someone says, "Let's hear a song!" and someone plays one.

The music in "Shipwrecked!" is a bit more like filmic underscoring, in that it sort of helps us feel what's going on, and there are only a couple of moments that are required by the script for people to sing and play instruments. But I think that music is one part of a larger storytelling tapestry. If you roll music and Foley together, it's even more a significant part of the production. But we're also doing shadow puppetry, we're doing physical storytelling, and we're doing some... I won't say dance elements, because I know my dance skills, or lack thereof, far too well to call them that, but movement-based storytelling, perhaps. In many ways, they are plays with a great deal of music; they are plays with a great deal of different storytelling elements in play. But I wouldn't necessarily think of them as "musical" in the classical sense of the word.

EDGE: As you were just pointing out, there's shadow puppetry, there's music-based stuff going on, and I think you said earlier there was some athleticism involved.

Allison Choat: Oh, yes.

EDGE: I wonder if there hasn't been a real movement in theater over the last several years to bring more of these different elements together in new and exciting ways, and inject theater with more speed and color and brash humor. Is this because there's a need to claim venerable work, like "Twelfth Night," for instance, and make it truly part of the contemporary scene? Or is it more down to needing to entice people away from their video games and other forms of entertainment?

Allison Choat: As a fan of both theater and video games, I feel comfortable saying this: I think both media are great; they both have their place; but I don't think theater can compete with the realism and the immersive quality of cinematic entertainment, and of video games, which are, to a large part, interactive. I don't think that's theater's place in our world any more; it doesn't feel as real.

To try and force it to feel real and immersive in a way that cinematic experience can do, where we forget ourselves and become completely immersed in the world that's being presented to us, I think that sort of does theater a disservice. To me, theater is a collaborative activity; it's always being created between the audience and the performers. It's always being reinvented from moment to moment. And that dynamism and that fluidity, that kind of control between the storytellers and the people listening to the story, I think that's what makes theater unique. Being able to tell a story imaginatively allows the audience to re-set their expectations and not to expect to sit passively by, but to be told, "Hey — you have to work with us here. This piece of blue cloth is a wave." I think in the act of creating and sharing that world, we really build community in an extraordinary way. I think when I sit in an audience with other audience members and I watch a show, I feel a kind of community that I absolutely don't in cinema, and I absolutely don't when I'm playing video games on the couch.

As a person who came to theater through the lens of process, as well as through the lens of drama, that's the original purpose of theater. It's the magic circle, it's the place where the community comes together to share ideas, and purge sins, and feel deeply. Those things are profound, and sharing those things in a community is no less important now than it was in the days of the Ancient Greeks. Which is why when people say, "Theater's dead, I give it five years," [I shrug that off]. As long as human beings need to feel together and acknowledge that feeling, theater has a place. For me, the physical dynamism to stage these productions and the multiple elements that are involved with them, don't necessarily feel like an effort to combat overstimulating modern influences, or to live up to them, but a way to connect to what I see theater as always having been.

If you do any research on the Elizabethans, they were a rowdy bunch: They yelled, they emptied their chamber pots in the street, they were a vigorous and dynamic people. I don't think their theater was the staid, quite thing that Shakespeare can all too often become. And for a show like "Shipwrecked!," [the dynamism] is written in - it's demanded. So, I think [injecting these different elements] is all about bringing theater back to its roots, rather than trying to modernize it.

EDGE: Next spring, Moonbox presents Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's musical "Caroline or Change." Just seeing those two names together is enough to get your heart pounding.

Allison Choat: Oh, yeah!

EDGE: Are you going to be involved with that production as well?

Allison Choat: I am! I am directing it, and I am so, so honored and thrilled. That is another production I wanted to do for as long as I've done theater. In a way, talking about it reminded me of talking about "Floyd Collins" [which Moonbox produced in 2012] in that I called [producer] Sharman [Altshuler] when I heard "Floyd Collins," and I said, "Hey, there's this bluegrass opera about a man stuck in a cave. Wanna do it?"

"Caroline or Change" is a Motown/Gospel opera about a woman stuck in a laundry room while the currents of social change wend their inexorable way around her. I'm fascinated by the incredible richness and depth of the characterization, and I think Tony Kushner has done unbelievable work there, and also in the richly imaginative storytelling. As a designer, I am deeply dawn to stories that allow visual richness, visual variety, and the allegorical element of "Caroline or Change" certainly adds depth. And, yes, I'll go ahead and say there's a classical Greek element to the storytelling. I find it really irresistible. And when you add to that that the music is incredibly rich and complex and rewarding for a musician as well as a listener, I just think it's extraordinary.

"Shipwrecked!" and "Twelfth Night" run in repertory from November 25th — December 29th at the BCA Plaza Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.moonboxproductions.org/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.