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Say It's So, Joe

By Rick Pender · January 21st, 2009 · Curtain Call

Local playwright Joe McDonough returns to the Cincinnati Playhouse this week for his third premiere, opening Thursday. Travels of Angelica is the winner of the 2009 Mickey Kaplan New American Play Prize.

“I was at a conference with other playwrights last summer,” he says, “and I was explaining that I had this production coming up and this relationship with the Playhouse — three productions in six years. They were stunned. Three playwrights were from New York, working with small downtown companies. They feel they don’t get any exposure.”

McDonough, whose previous Playhouse premieres were One (2003) and Stone My Heart (2006, another Kaplan prize-winner), also has a good relationship with
Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, where his script Wayfarer’s Rest premiered in 2006. He also writes scripts for ETC's holiday musicals, including the recent Alice in Wonderland.

Travels of Angelica might be McDonough’s most ambitious script yet. His previous Playhouse shows were staged in the smaller Shelterhouse; Angelica is being mounted in the Marx, with three times the seating capacity.

“I felt like I was painting on a bigger canvas,” he says. “It has a cast of seven, and the scope of a play is larger. It gave me a chance to stretch some muscles.”

The play juxtaposes related stories from 17th and 20th centuries.

In 1657, a British playwright flees to America with his daughter to escape charges of political sedition: He has written a play, an act of creativity forbidden by England’s conservative government. In Virginia, he devises a new identity but must deal with a blackmailing neighbor. In the present, a pair of literary historians researches the long-forgotten Crumpler. The play moves between past and present, showing how lives and stories are inextricably linked.

McDonough says his play is about imagination and storytelling.

“We need creativity and inspiration in our lives,” he says. “That spark is what sustains us. I’ve tried to work that through the characters — to explore why we need storytelling, art and theater.”

McDonough conceived the play in 2005 and offered it to the Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern a year later. There was a reading in 2007, using several actors from Stern’s production of Othello. Three of them are in Angelica’s cast: Sarah Dandridge, Joneal Joplin (the Playhouse’s Ebenezer Scrooge from 1997 to 2005) and another familiar Playhouse actor, Greg Thornton. Stern, who directed One and Stone My Heart, is staging McDonough’s new script.

The playwright says his text has evolved.

“The first draft I gave to Ed was a monster — 148 pages!” he says. “Now we’re down to 108. The funny thing is, it’s the same 12 scenes. It’s just tighter now.”

That’s how a new play develops and improves during workshops and rehearsals for its premiere production.

Even though the turbulent economy has caused the Playhouse to shorten Angelica’s run by about a week, McDonough is grateful for a world premiere when times are tough and budgets are tight.

“Art is always necessary in our society, in good times and bad — maybe even be more important when things are bad,” he says.

Thinking about the theme he explores in Angelica, he adds, “Art makes us human. Creativity and imagination, that’s where our humanity begins and where it ends.”

Say it’s so, Joe. That’s why theater is essential, regardless of the economy.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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