John Kuntz Checks Into the ’Hotel Nepenthe’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday March 3, 2011

When EDGE catches up to John Kuntz it's early January and the prolific playwright and actor is starring opposite Richard Snee in the Nora Theatre Company's production of Hysteria at the Central Square Theater, a play in which Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud encounter one another with comic results.

"I'm playing Salvadore Dalí ," Kuntz says. "Terry Johnson wrote it, the guy who wrote the revised La Cage aux Folles that everyone was crazy about."

So, is Hysteria a Cage aux Folles-like farce?

"It's hard to describe," Kuntz reckons. "Salvador Dalí and Freud actually did meet in 1938. Freud was going to die a year later of jaw cancer, so he was pretty sick. Dali was 38, and he had traveled all this way because he thought Freud was just the best, and his work [like Freud's was] about dreams and the unconscious. So they met and they had tea, and Dali did some sketches of him, and nothing very much happened in actuality.

"In the play," Kuntz adds, "Johnson imagines all these crazy things going on between them. It's kind of a farce--a cross between a silly farce and a dark [comedy] that addresses serious topics about reality and regret and guilt, and things like that."

Kuntz has played real people meeting other real people in historical encounters before. He played physicist Werner Heisenberg in the ART's production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which dramatized a visit that Heisenberg paid to fellow physicist Neils Bohr, a visit that actually took place, but about which little is known.

"Heisenberg," Kuntz mummurs thoughtfully. "I was thinking it's different when you play a real person, compared to someone that you just make up. I was thinking about Heisenberg and people in general who are alive, or were alive.

"Like Dalí: You have all this stuff you can draw on. There are books I can read; I see him on YouTube, I can hear how he talked. There's all this stuff I can research. It makes things a little easier and more complicated at the same time. And that crazy mustache! I'm trying to grow that..."

But we're here to talk about Kuntz's new play, Hotel Nepenthe. The new work is a departure from Hysteria in that, while it has many comic elements, it's neither based on historical people or events, nor is it a farce. It does, however, meditate on the mysteries of the cosmos in a way that Heisenberg--for whom the famed "uncertainty principle" is named--might well appreciate.

Modern physicists don't think of time as necessarily fixed, or even sequential; the fact that the past seems definite, and the future a tabula rasa, has more to do with the nature of human memory than with the real world, a world that ironically seems more and more unreal as cosmologists and theoreticians delve ever more deeply into its mysteries.

To we mere mortals, one cause leads to a finite number of direct effects, and all other possibilities vanish when one outcome crystallizes into reality. But that's not necessarily the way things really are. Theoretical physicists view the universe as a sort of composite of all the possible routes events might have taken, and all the possible outcomes those events might have led to. They call this the "sum over histories"--which is to say, the "definitive edition" of all the various chains of cause and effect that are always taking place. The Hotel Nepenthe views the question from a more artistic, philosophical angle: what if we had some way of seeing what our lives, and our selves, are like in those other, inaccessible, petals of the universe's unfurling rosebud?

It's heavy stuff, but Kuntz keeps his new play alive with comic energy as a group of characters weave in and out of their respective alternate histories. At the hub of all their frenetic activity is the mysterious Hotel Nepenthe--a hotel famed for its leopardskin bathrobes and, more recently, a grisly murder.

"I never thought of it as a farce, but there is a lot of interchangey sort of stuff, a lot of people going in and out," Kuntz says of the play. "There are four actors and we play 17 characters among us. It's a lot of two-person scenes. I wouldn't necessarily call it a comedy... it's a dark comedy," the playwright adds. "The play is funny. it's just funny and sad and scary, too."

Kuntz goes on to say, "It's contemporary. It's set in some darkened, unidentified American city. The people that we all play all kind of revolve around the hotel, and the hotel is a pathway to different universes-it's kind of a little black hole that leads to different parallel universes, where the character you're playing is completely different person, so in one world this woman is the wife of a Senator, and in another she's a murder victim.

"All their lives sort of intertwine, and time gets a little warped because there are people who can go from one place into another," Kuntz explains. "There's this hotel where something awful has happened, and a baby is missing, and you're not sure what has happened. Then the play sort of explores the possibilities of what might have happened."

The hotel at the center of the metaphysical, multi-universe action is named not for some high-tech, futuristic device or concept, but rather for an ancient bit of Greek lore.

"Nepenthe is this mythical drug that is supposed to cure grief, and grief is a big component of the play," Kuntz tells EDGE. "People in the play are avoiding grief, or they are avoiding themselves, or they are avoiding sorrow in their lives. And there's this kind of darkness-the hotel is kind of like Egdon Heath in Return of the Native. It's always there. It's not exactly ambivalent; it's like a character itself."

Then there's the trust issue.

Issues of Trust and Identity

"Who can you trust in this world?" Kuntz asks--a question that's hard enough to ponder in the everyday world, where if our lives and times are in constant flux and reality itself is doing kaleidoscopic contortions, we never notice it. In the multi-verse of the Hotel Nepenthe, however, it's a questions wrapped up with fear, longing, sexual ambiguity, and potentially lethal consequences.

"You might think you know someone, but then it turns out that you don't at all," Kuntz adds. "I found that interesting. People are so fluid these days, and we exist, but we have iPhones and iPads and cell phones and we have other identities that are online and over the phone.

This play takes it a step further, and explores what other identities we have over the course of time itself. If we didn't make that seemingly insignificant choice back then, would the whole world be different? It's something we always wonder about. This play takes that idea and explores it a little bit."

Speaking of questions of identity, what's up with the Actors' Shakespeare Project? This is a company that for five seasons stuck almost exclusively to the Bard's canon, and the one occasion when the ASP departed from Shakespeare is was to produce The Duchess of Malfi--written by a contemporary of Shakespeare. Suddenly, in its sixth year, the ASP is striking out in a rewarding new direction.

"It's the first new play that they've ever produced," Kuntz acknowledges. "I'm very honored that they decided to produce my play." But it won't be the last time the ASP produces a contemporary work. In fact, a second modern play is imminent, and part of the company's "Winter Festival," a briskly fun and frolicsome triune of plays that includes not only The Hotel Nepenthe, but also Shakespeare's Cymbelene and Living In Exile, a contemporary work by John Lipsky that will be directed by ASP's artistic director Allyn Burrows.

"This is Allyn Burrows' first year as artistic director, and this is one of the ideas he wanted to explore," Kuntz tells EDGE. "Shakeapeare wrote new plays; Shakespeare was a contemporary playwright back in the day. And I don't want to speak for Allyn, but I think that part of the idea was to completely honor Shakespeare by performing new work. And supporting new plays and new playwrights is, I think, part of the mission of the Actors' Shakespeare Project.

"Then again," Kuntz laughs over his play marking a departure from the classical canon, "it's only a two-week run. It's different from us turning into a company that focuses primarily on new work. I don't think that's happening."

The venture is sure to generate fresh energy. Notes Kuntz, "I think it's very exciting. I think that people who like our work would be excited to go along and experience that along with Shakespeare's works. Also, it might draw people who might not have come to see us at all--people who aren't necessarily interested in Shakespeare, but they might come and check out The Hotel Nepenthe because they are interested in new work. While they're there, they might check out Cymbelene, too, and find that there's something interesting in both of these things."

Indeed, excitement is a watchword this season with ASP, which kicked off the season with an ambitious two-part production of Henry IV, Parts I and II, presented under the omnibus title The Coveted Crown. The plays were bookended with scenes from Richard III at the start, and Henry V at the end.

"That was an enormous, huge, ambitious undertaking," Kuntz recalls. "We'd never done anything like that. Then to follow that with this Winter Festival, which is another thing that we've never done--yes, this is a risky, ambitious season. Again, it's Allyn's first time [as artistic director] and I think when you're new, you want to do new things. You want to explore different possibilities. I think it's exciting. You could just do the same thing again, but why? There are so many possibilities to explore."

That's a good way to sum up The Hotel Nepenthe, which does just that: explores a multitude of possibilities, weaving and tying strands together to tell a layered and sometimes darkly reflective story.

But Kuntz is speaking about Boston area theater as a whole, noting the re-opening of the newly refurbished Paramount and what feels like a new surge of artistic energy in the city's theater scene. "It's an exciting time, I think," Kuntz says.

The Hotel Nepenthe has been extended for an additional four performances and will run through March 13 at The Storefront, located at 255 Elm Street in Davis Square, Somerville

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.