Theater Is His Medium; Playwriting His Seance
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Wraiths might not send faxes or drink soda pop, but don't tell that to up-and-coming playwright Jason Grote. Rigid distinctions between realism and fantasy don't hold much sway with the 37-year-old Brooklynite, whose dysfunctional-family ghost story, "Maria/Stuart," featuring a faxing, soda-quaffing shape-shifter, debuts tomorrow at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Grote, the author of the phantasmagoric Kabbalah-laced romance "This Storm Is What We Call Progress" (which Rorschach Theatre premiered in June), has made a name for himself in recent years with scripts that explode the boundaries between the ordinary and the chimerical, the political and the aesthetic, the intimate and the dizzyingly cosmic.
His writing is as likely to dabble in meta-literary tricks as it is to trade in the sensationalism of science fiction, comic books and supernatural yarns. "I'm very fascinated with that convergence between the heightened elements of genre entertainment and literary sophistication," the bearded playwright said in a July interview in the Woolly greenroom. When the two sensibilities collide, he added, "it illuminates both: the mythical nature of these genre conventions, but also the magical nature of the mundane and everyday."
That double-edged approach to storytelling has impressed local theater power brokers. "He's one of our biggest-thinking playwrights in America today," says Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz. "He doesn't write a play that doesn't have some gigantic idea embedded in it." Shalwitz points, for instance, to the spooky shape-shifter whose haunting of the blood relatives in "Maria/Stuart" "invites you to think big thoughts" about family dynamics "and the myths we carry from the past."
"Big" is a word that crops up a lot in talk about Grote's oeuvre. "He's not afraid to write a big play, even in this day and age, where it seems harder to get a big play produced," says Ed Herendeen, producing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Grote's "1001" -- a terrorism-themed "Arabian Nights" riff -- played the festival last year. Staged by Herendeen, the production was a postmodern hallucination of mosques and Ground Zero devastation, complete with a Jorge Luis Borges cameo and specters gamboling to "Thriller."
Grote "has this really big vision and limitless imagination: There is nothing he shies away from," marvels Jenny McConnell Frederick, Rorschach's co-artistic director, who directed "This Storm" -- a play that includes this confounding stage direction: "She unzips his skin, and inside him is the sky."
Frederick identifies another trait that attracts directors to Grote's work: an emotional and sociological truth that grounds his eerie metaphysics. "Jason seems to create really human, relatable characters in these fantastic landscapes," she says.
She's not the only one to see real-world relevance in Grote's fanciful universes. "Jason uses magical realism to take on social and cultural issues," says Kent Thompson, artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, which premiered "1001." "He never sees the world just from one viewpoint."
That flexibility of perspective is unmistakable in a conversation with the playwright, who showed up for his interview looking as serious as is possible while wearing lime-green sneakers. An unrepentant intellectual who reads critical theorists for fun and teaches writing at Rutgers, he has blogged for Comedy Central and is a fan of comic books -- with art by Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez brothers, for instance, but also traditional superhero adventures. (A central character in "Maria/Stuart" is a comic book artist who names his superheroes after Chekhov plays.)
On the creative front, Grote's ability to vault from one paradigm to another has permitted him to hone a signature working method: He resolves to write a play in a given genre, or with given limitations (an Aristotelian unity of place, say), and then allows himself to stretch that prescribed form. "Restrictions are very useful for any artist," he explains.
Thus "Storm" -- with its Jewish motifs, eerie apparitions and enigmatic scene titles ("Only the velvet telephone of revelation") -- was his remodeling of "a play that I don't want to write, which is this identity-politics play," he recalls. With "1001," he set out to write an otherworldly Orientalist yarn that, if necessary, could be performed as a trunk show.
As for "Maria/Stuart" (being directed by Pam MacKinnon), it draws its structure and theme of family rivalry from -- go figure -- "Mary Stuart," German writer Friedrich Schiller's 1800 tragedy about Mary, Queen of Scots, and her kinswoman Elizabeth I. Grote, whose great-grandfather bequeathed him a statue of Schiller, overlaid this blueprint with characters inspired by his mother and her sisters, a generation whose professional and social careers, he thinks, gave them "a sense of achievement, but also, to some degree, a sense of disillusionment and disappointment."