For the past year, Mildred's Umbrella theater company has workshopped new plays before an open audience for their Fresh Ink Reading Series. They solicited the works in hopes of finding a new play to produce in their next season. The plays are given a staged reading, and the audience is then asked to fill out a survey based on what they have just seen. The play that gets the best response will, ideally, be produced in 2012-2013. It's an intriguing idea, like American Idol or The Voice (I don't know the difference between the two) for theater.
Last night at Studio 101 was the final installment of the series, which totaled four readings. The play on the docket was a new work by Houston's own Greg Hundemer. Hundemer has been out of town as of late, but those familiar with Houston's underground theater should recognize his name. In 2008, his play Hot Child in Hollywood was produced by BooTown theater company, and he has had numerous other short works produced locally. Last night's reading was of his latest work, titled Simulacrum, and it was directed for Fresh Ink by Philip Hayes.
Simulacrum is Latin for likeness or similarity, which is a main thematic aspect to the play. The action begins with a woman, Ivory, in the middle of a dream, or is it a nightmare? She has a dialogue with a stranger who may be a figment of her imagination or potentially her creator. As the play moves along, the stranger begins shaping her words and feelings. She starts to prefer the company of this figment to that of her friends and family. The play makes allusions to Ivory's psychoses, giving the audience hints that maybe she is a schizophrenic or the like, and this fabricated man is just that, a psychotic imaginary friend. She refuses to take her prescribed medication, which exacerbates the situation.
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By midway through, the crazy angle gives way to a fourth wall breakage. She's not crazy, she's a character in a play and the stranger is the writer himself. Yes, we've seen this device before, but Hundemer then throws us for a loop. Maybe she is not the character at all but the writer is? Who creates whom and what life do the characters we create have beyond the page? For a writer, the concept is relatable. We fall in love with our characters and imagine them to be real. We often prefer their company to that of others, and maybe we even want to sleep with them.
Hundemer is an incredibly funny writer. He finds humor in absurdities and many of the characters are outlandish caricatures of caricatures. A professor that Ivory seeks advice from is a bumbling mess of a person. He drops his briefcase filled with papers all over the stage. Then he drops pocket watches, Chinese food containers and Champagne flutes, all things he happens to be carrying on his person. Ivory has an artist friend who creates a painting using more than 200 shades of blue -- a representation of the artist's tortured soul! She uses sex as an artistic weapon; every other word out of her mouth has four letters and begins with "F." Ivory's mother, as well, is a clichéd version of every awful mother you can imagine, done so purposefully.
Whether Simulacrum will be produced by Mildred's next season is anybody's guess. There were moments throughout that I wondered, "Now how the heck will they do that?" But isn't that what makes theater so exciting, being in awe of how a few actors and a director can turn words on a page into a production? It would be a challenge, for sure, but a fun ride for the audience.