- Courtesy Of Middlebury Actors Workshop
As summer draws to a close, Middlebury Actors Workshop kicks off its fall season with the second annual Cutting Edge Off-Broadway Play Reading Series. It opens with Lucas Hnath's 2016 play Red Speedo, directed by Rebecca Strum.
The play tells the story of a swimmer named Ray, performed by Sam Finn Cutler, who is about to compete in the Olympic trials while simultaneously vying for a coveted sponsorship from the swimwear brand Speedo. When a cooler full of performance-enhancing drugs is found in the club's fridge, Ray and his team need to make some choices, the consequences of which could cost him his career or his integrity.
Hnath plays have been popping up around Vermont lately. Just last month, Weston Playhouse produced A Doll's House, Part 2, a sequel to the Henrik Ibsen classic. MAW itself presented Hnath's play The Christians as a full-scale production last spring.
As Strum puts it, Hnath "asks the big questions and doesn't tell us how we should think about them."
Red Speedo, she adds, "is about the cost of winning. Our society focuses so much on being first and being best, and this play asks us to consider what we lose when we forge blindly ahead for our goals."
Though MAW has worked with the same playwright twice this year, Strum asserts, "All of his plays are very different." Both feature a strong and impactful setting: The Christians takes place in a megachurch, Red Speedo at an Olympic-size swimming pool. In its off-Broadway production at New York Theatre Workshop, the striking set featured an actual swimming pool onstage.
Strum will not be so ambitious with her staging; at the intimate Byers Studio at Town Hall Theater, including a swimming pool would require the audience also to wear swimsuits. Instead, Strum will adopt the conventions of a rehearsed reading that are now familiar to Middlebury audiences.
"In the first year, we really had to educate the audience as to what a staged reading is," she notes. "Now people come up to me to tell me how much they like play readings."
At their rehearsed reading, actors Cutler, Andy Butterfield, Aly Perry and Roy Cutler will have their scripts in hand — probably on music stands. Frankie Dunleavy will read the stage directions, a role that may be particularly important in Red Speedo.
"Probably the biggest challenge of this particular show is the last four pages," Strum reveals, "which is just one long stage fight."
Though Strum admits she isn't yet sure how the company will work that out, she says, "I have a few ideas, and I'm excited to see what the actors come up with, too."
Red Speedo has received much critical acclaim; the play's script won an Obie Award, which recognizes excellence in off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theater. The dialogue has been compared to David Mamet's signature style, with many fragmented sentences — some lacking an ending, others lacking a beginning.
One goal of the Cutting Edge series is, as the title suggests, to bring edgier shows to Middlebury. In contrast to Red Speedo, for example, MAW's first main-stage production is an adaptation of Henry James' 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw, written 118 years before Hnath's play.
Strum says she has been encouraged by the positive reactions to the newer shows. She and MAW artistic director Melissa Lourie hope the series will serve as a pilot program for the company's main-stage shows, with the more successful readings being elevated to full-scale productions.
For now, the readings allow audiences to focus on the plays' texts and themes. "We've specifically chosen plays that are thought-provoking and intellectual," Strum explains. "Doing a reading allows us to really consider the big questions being presented, which are relevant to our time."
After each show, Strum and the actors lead the audience in a talkback, giving them a chance to delve further into a play's themes. "I'm amazed by how many people stay for the talkbacks," she says. "We always have robust discussions."
In addition to Red Speedo, MAW's Cutting Edge series will present a reading of Taylor Mac's 2015 HIR in November. The plays for two spring readings are still to be determined.