In the play “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” now in production at Signature Theatre, three women — a nurse, a soldier and an art restorer — are in an art museum in an unnamed country, where a 100-year-long war rages outside. The museum has been converted to a prison, the restorer is charged with rehabbing a damaged Rembrandt, and the other two are there to make sure she does it. The women’s relationships begin to shift as they all play their roles in trying to save one example of the beauty humans can create.
“It spoke to me really clearly about what is it in this world that really matters,” says Nadia Tass, who is directing the world premiere. “Given a situation where a person can save something at a time of destruction, what is that something they will choose? And as a human race, what is it we are going to choose — what’s valuable?”
The production is this year’s effort for the Heidi Thomas Writers’ Initiative, which is the theater’s five-year commitment to presenting world-premiere plays by female playwrights and helmed by female directors.
For playwright Heather McDonald, this particular story had to be told through female characters. “I wanted to explore how we make people ‘other’ in order to be able to dehumanize somee and allow for all sorts of acts of horror,” she says. “I was interested in thinking about women in that situation and would they behave any differently. I felt like even if there were one male character in the mix, it would be a different story.”
Women not only dominate “Masterpieces” onstage, but backstage as well. They make up the vast majority of the play’s creative team, and for actors Holly Twyford, Felicia Curry and Yesenia Iglesias, this is the first time in their careers that’s been the case. And it’s made a difference.
“It is a little bit of a different dynamic,” says Twyford, who plays Layla, the art restorer. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better or worse. It’s maybe a little less complicated sometimes — I feel like we communicate very easily in the room.”
Curry, who plays Mitra, the soldier, says that ease of communication has made a noticeable difference when it comes to bringing up ideas, questions and doubts during the rehearsal process. During some other shows, “my hesitation to say anything is because I don’t want to be judged. I feel like I have to come up with the right thing to say before I say it,” she says. “In an environment like this, where I don’t have to worry about that, it doesn’t matter what comes out of my mouth — everyone is going to respect it, or at least listen to it.”
All three of the actors agree that their involvement with this production will affect how they’ll feel the next time they walk into a rehearsal room.
In the future, “[I will] fear less the consequences of speaking up, fear less the judgment or any sort of connotations that come with speaking up,” says Iglesias, who plays Nadia, the nurse. “I would love other theaters to pick up on the kind of difference this makes in a theater space, in a rehearsal space, and embrace it for themselves.”
“Having this experience with a female cast, a female creative team, I just feel stronger,” Curry says. “I feel like I can be heard and I must be heard.”
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through April 7, $40-$93.