Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ellen McLaughlin Sings

The first time I truly met the actress and playwright Ellen McLaughlin, we were having lunch at a diner near the Classic Stage Company when David Esbjornson was the artistic director.  I was interviewing her for a Village Voice article.  Ellen was in the midst of rehearsals for her play Iphigenia and Other Daughters.

As Ellen has delved deeper into playwriting over the years, the subject of war consistently haunts her work.  Yes, Ellen has stood on the shoulders of the extant Greek classics which are nothing if not violent and war-mongering.  Ellen's tough-minded, lyrically charged dramas have tackled subject of great relevance and astonishing invention.

Take for example her latest project: New York University's Gallatin School is hosting a workshop presentation of Penelope, a new music-theater piece featuring the author herself and a string quartet, With original music by Sarah Kirkland Snider, the presentations take place at NYU Gallatin School’s new Labowitz theatre, 715 Broadway, on October 29, 20, 31 and November 1st at 7 PM with a 2 PM matinee on November 1.

A plot description: "A woman's ex-husband appears at her door after an absence of 20 years, suffering from brain damage. A veteran of a modern war, he doesn't know who he is and she doesn't know who he's become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him The Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband's memory and the terror and trauma of war."

First produced in 2008 at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Penelope will be directed by Lisa Rothe. The string quartet will be: Olivia De Prato and Amie Weiss on violin; Beth Meyers, viola and Lauren Radnofsky, cello. The lighting designer is M. L. Geiger with set design by Eliza Brown and video design by Marilys Ernst. 

Tickets for this 5-performance engagement are $10 with fee admission to NYU students presenting valid ID. Tickets are available online at and can be purchased at the Ticket Central Box Office in the Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South, on the day of performance. Students must present ID at Ticket Central (open Mon-Fri 12:30 to 7 PM) to obtain free seats. Tickets will not be sold at the door.

Penelope will will also be presented at Princeton’s Taplin Auditorium, Washington Road, on November 4 and 5 at 8 PM. These performances are free and open to the public.

Another example: Earlier this October, Ellen premiering at the American Repertory Theatre/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training her latest play Ajax in Iraq under the direction of Scott Zigler. Inspired by Sophocles's Ajax, Ellen took on the current U.S. war in Iraq and grappled with some important questions: "How does the experience of war affect the common soldier? What do veterans bring home from war? How have female soliders been affected by the war in Iraq?" states a prepared statement.

Ajax in Iraq is the result of a 2007 residency grant from Theatre Communications Group and the National Endowment for the Arts to develop a new play with the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training class of 2009. Over 16 months, McLaughlin spent time with an ensemble of acting students at the institute. After doing interviews and independent research, the students brought back materials dealing with civil war letters, Korean comfort women, homeless veterans, military recruitment and soldiers’ blogs. They also wrote scenes, monologues, dance pieces and created performance pieces.

A year after the workshops began, McLaughlin wrote Ajax in Iraq to fit the students who participated in the project.  Integrating what she learned from the students, who felt that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are becoming our modern-day Vietnam, the play also re-tells a version of Sophocles’ play with a modern-day tragedy about a female soldier serving in the current Iraq war.  Some of the choral elements are based on oral interviews.  The goddess Athena narrates the evening.

War has definitely been on Ellen's mind lately.
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