The UW-Eau Claire theater program is presenting a story that involves a songwriter, his wife, his mistress and the pope.
It may sound like the setup to a joke, and John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” has been hailed as a comedy. But as director Jennifer Chapman explained, the play is so much more than that.
“It’s the funniest play you will ever see, but it is also very sad and at times very disturbing,” said Chapman, an associate professor of theater arts and theater program coordinator. She added that Guare “really captures both the lightness and darkness in humanity and in our existence together.”
“The House of Blue Leaves,” which opens tonight in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s Jamf Theatre, premiered off-Broadway in 1971. In 1986, it was revived off-Broadway and made its Broadway debut. It returned to Broadway in 2011. Its honors include the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play and the Obie Award for Best American Play in 1971.
As Chapman explained, Guare has said inspiration for the play was that as a child growing up in Brooklyn in a Catholic family, he and his grandmother went to Rome to see Pope Paul VI.
“And on the day that they arrived in Rome, the pope was in Brooklyn,” she said, laughing. “This was so emblematic of these really funny moments of failure in life,” Chapman said. “And so the play is all constructed around that.”
The play, set not coincidentally in 1965 in Queens, tells the story of Artie, a songwriter who dreams of becoming famous. Also in the picture is his wife, Bananas, who who has, as Chapman noted, “a very serious mental illness.” Artie also has a mistress, Bunny.
Chapman chose the play for educational and personal reasons. Explaining why the play “has to be good,” she said the theater program always seeks to give students “high quality educational experiences” through the plays they perform and study in the classroom.
The personal reasons stem from her own appreciation of “The House of Blue Leaves.”
“It is a play that I have loved for a long time and also my colleagues have loved for a long, long time,” she said. “I studied it when I was in college. It was really a pleasure to return to it and also to return to it as an older person and to understand it in a different way.”
Thematically sophisticated, “House of Blue Leaves” presents challenges to the cast. “The (play) offers a lot of rich acting opportunities because the characters are very textured and complicated,” Chapman said. “I think it is an incredibly difficult show to act in, and the language is really poetic.”
Reanna Madson, who plays the role of Bananas, describes her character as “very fun to play.”
Despite Bananas’ illness, Madson said, “She kind of has these moments where she goes big and then she gets distracted.”
Madson added that Bananas isn’t all that different from others in the play. “Every character starts off kind of normal, and then you kind of see them go through these very hard moments,” she said.
In addition to the specific challenges to “The House of Blue Leaves,” comedy itself at this level is no easy task, particularly one that brings a physical style, Chapman said.
“Learning physical comedy is very challenging,” she said. “In some ways it’s much more difficult than serious drama because the pace is so fast and the being physically ready for the jokes and the running around is so challenging.”
While Madson acknowledged that it can be a bit of a challenge to handle this kind of show’s mix of humor and drama, she was quick to point to the rewards.
“I really like plays that have really comedic and dark moments,” she said.
The play’s history of revivals, including as recently as this decade on Broadway, suggest it has aged well.
“I think the play has endured over time because of its universals,” Chapman said. “It has people who cling to a dream and keep striving for it and constantly fall short of achieving it. And in its representation it looks at how funny we are as human beings. How silly we are to have dreams of things that are unachieved and yet we miss what is so important right in front of us when we do that.”
Madson also found a theme in the play that reflects on our current world.
“You see these people get fame for the bad things they do, and I think that’s really relevant to today,” she said.
Chapman also directs UW-Eau Claire’s Theatre for Young Audiences. Because of that, she said, some audience members may think she only does children’s plays. Because that’s not the case, she likes to offer a rating of who would be a particular play’s audience.
In that respect, she said, “The House of Blue Leaves” is “definitely not a play for kids.” There is no cursing, she said. Rather, “I would say it’s not a play for kids because it’s not about kid things; it’s about grown-up things. And it has some moderate violence in it that’s used in a very strategic way.”
Thus, she says she would give it a rating of PG-13, or something appropriate for older high school students. But, she acknowledged, “Everybody has different standards.”
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