Factory 449: A miracle on Church Street

No assembly-line halos from Factory 449: After the success of "4:48 Psychosis," the company returns with "The Saint Plays."
No assembly-line halos from Factory 449: After the success of "4:48 Psychosis," the company returns with "The Saint Plays." (Ian Armstrong)
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, September 17, 2010

John Moletress and Rick Hammerly entered a play in last year's Capital Fringe Festival fully intending to test Washington's theatrical waters.

Moletress, a director, and Hammerly, a Helen Hayes Award-winning actor, had just formed Factory 449, a collective of actors, writers, filmmakers and musicians who would produce collaborative theater heavy on the video and music. And the group had already chosen to launch with Sarah Kane's "4:48 Psychosis," a fever-dream of a play widely believed to have been Kane's suicide note (she hanged herself shortly after writing it).

Fringe would be a soft opening, a chance to work out the kinks.

But they didn't anticipate the reception.

"Things went so well that we weren't ready for how fast it was going to move," Hammerly says. Five shows quickly became six, and after Fringe concluded, the play went on to an extended run at the Warehouse.

"We thought we'd explore this [collective] over a couple of years," Moletress adds. "But we were so lucky with the success of '4:48' that we just ran with it."

In May, the company launched a public play-reading series to explore works it might perform over the next few years. And this week, Factory 449 attempts its strange alchemy again with its second show, "The Saint Plays," a handful of short plays, each based on the tales of saints. Factory 449 snapped up six plays -- including contemporary reworkings of the stories of John the Baptist and Joan of Arc -- from those created by playwright Erik Ehn, figuring those six would best play to the company's strengths. Ehn even dashed off one just for this production, which continues through Oct. 10 at Church Street Theater.

" 'The Saint Plays' couldn't be a more daunting project," Hammerly confesses. "It's so visual, it's so image-heavy. . . . [Ehn] takes a saint, and he throws that saint into a context that we might not necessarily think of that saint being in."

In Ehn's retelling of the story of Joan, for example, Moletress says he sees suggestions of an examination of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

With Ehn's blessing, the company has found a way to transform his words into a visual language: The 10 actors who star in "The Saint Plays" won't necessarily step into the roles of those saints but will recount the stories.

This season, which Factory 449 is calling its second, will include just one more full production, Caridad Svich's "Magnificent Waste," scheduled for next spring.

"When we're reading plays now, we're not reading them from an audience standpoint or a director's standpoint," Hammerly says. Instead, the burning questions are, "Musically, what could be added to this? Is there a video or film component?"

"It's amazing," he says. "When you start looking at scripts that way, if they don't challenge, if they don't utilize all the different things this company can do, it weeds out a lot of them."

The Saint Plays Through Oct. 10. Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. http://www.factory449.com. $22-$25; a pay-what-you-can performance is Friday.

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