A man in a World War II concentration camp is kept alive only because he has invented an early version of the calculator -- a four-function, hand-held model. But the only thing keeping him from being killed is that as far as his Nazi captors know, he hasn't completely finished it.
In Intelligence-Slave, the third of the Alley Theatre's New Play Initiatives this year, playwright Kenneth Lin sets up an exercise in survival and tension, all of which is ratcheted up a notch upon the arrival of a young brilliant member of the Hitler Youth brought in to work with the prisoner, Curt Herzstark.
Hair Balls talked with the Alley's resident dramaturg, Mark Bly, who, as it turns out, has a long history with author Lin. "Ken Lin was my student at Yale in the playwriting program. He was one of three students I accepted. I knew he was going to be an extraordinary writer," Bly said.
Bly kept an eye on Lin's work and when he learned about this play, he says he fell in love with it and brought it to the attention of Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd. He asked Lin, who is Asian-American, why he was interested in telling a story of the Holocaust.
"He said, 'in a few decades there will be no more survivors to testify. This is something we all need to care about to carry the legacy of the Holocaust into the future.'" Bly said. "As Ken says, 'We're one generation away from there being no more survivors.'"
Bly is justifiably proud of the work the Alley Theatre is doing in bringing new plays along. At a time when many theaters across the country are pulling back because of budgetary concerns, the Alley had world premieres of Rajiv Joseph's Gruesome Playgound Injuries in the fall and Jack Murphy, Gregory Boyd and Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland at the start of the year.
Fortunately for the Alley, the risks it is willing to take have been rewarded with a certain amount of success.
"A lot of people were willing to see Gruesome Playground Injuries. They came to it and loved it; we did our budget and beyond," Bly said. By the last weeks of Wonderland, it was standing room only to get in to see the performances.
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Bly's role in all this, other than to help find good material and present it to the Alley for consideration, is to provide notes and guidance while the plays are in rehearsal, helping with any fine-tuning that's a common part of putting together more successful shows. Following Wonderland they did a one-week workshop with Intelligence-Slave that helped the actors and the writer.
With all the plays that the Alley puts on in a year, Bly thinks it's fitting that it set aside three to encourage new writers and productions and to open up new kinds of offerings for theater-goers.
"Why not make three of them plays that can be a legacy for the future? If you're in a state that was founded by pioneers, why not have a few pioneers in the 21st Century?"
Intelligence-Slave runs May 23 through June 20, 2010 on the Neuhaus Stage. Tickets are available for purchase at www.alleytheatre.org, at the Alley Theatre Box Office, 615 Texas Avenue, or by calling 713.220.5700.