By Sharon Eberson
It would be nice if time travel was as easy as saying: “See you later. It’s later.”
In Will Arbery‘s Plano, people go from now to then just that quickly.
“That sucked me in at first, that simple little time device,” said Adil Mansoor, who directs the play for Quantum Theatre April 1-24.
In Arbery’s twisty version of reality, some of life’s biggest moments happen in a blink of an eye, all without ever leaving Genevieve’s porch in Oak Cliff. That middle-income Texas suburb is less than 30 miles – but only as the crow flies – from Plano, by some measures the most affluent city in the United States.
Genevieve and her sisters, Ann and Isabel, are at the center of Plano, the play, which has settled into the former TechShop storefront at Bakery Square.
To describe Plano is no easy task. According to licensing company Concord Theatricals, “Tonight, and later, and earlier, three sisters (no, not those ones ) are stricken with a series of strange plagues. Let’s talk about family nightmares. We mean, uh, memories.” ( No, not Chekov’s Three Sisters, one can assume.)
In the Quantum website description, the sisters are plagued by “men who occupy all too much of the oxygen-rich atmosphere around them in astroturf-lined suburbia. With flashes of absurdity that ring true, Plano is a darkly funny domestic drama, an exploding tennis ball of ideas, lobbed at America.”
Oh, and there’s also a “Faceless Ghost” to be reckoned with and a character who is two-for-one, as seen through his partner’s eyes.
“We had a journey to what the play was asking us to do,” artistic director Karla Boos explained. “There’s this approach to character that was not clear to us until it was. And then when you get it, it just starts rolling, and it’s funny and zippy. And it makes you squirm.”
The play is directed by Mansoor, who brought it to Boos after it was given to him by writer Paul Kruse – Mansoor and Kruse comprise two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s Hatch Arts Collective, with Nichole Shero. Mansoor directed “Chickens in the Yard” by Kruse as the inaugural project in Quantum’s Gerri Kay New Voices Program, and he went on to direct The River for Quantum.
Mansoor usually is a slow reader, he said, but he found Arbery’s script to be a page-turner and one to which he had a visceral response.
“The first time I read it, I found myself laughing, like really, haha, and then suddenly, two-thirds of the way through, I got really emotional and was really missing my siblings. Like, physically missing my siblings. And then, near the end, I started crying. The fact that I was surprised by having all those feelings made me want to do it, and the other thing was, I knew a Pittsburgh team could bring this to life.”
Boos knew instinctively that Mansoor and the Quantum team could meet the challenge of staging an enigmatic work, as they had done with Chickens in the Yard – actors manifested the chickens – and Jez Butterworth’s The River.
Boos recalled that set designer Britton Mauk suggested The River reflect its title. “And I’m like, ‘Britton, you are going to make a river,’ because that was a brilliant idea,” Boos said. “And I just knew the actors wouldn’t fall in, even while making eye contact with each other.”
For this show, the environmental theater took the outdoors indoors again. Since the wide world of the play takes place on a porch, it was decided a “gestural shape” was in order, and set designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley provided a triangle, with the narrow tip pointing toward the audience.
“We talked about how we really wanted the set – the play itself is so poetic, and it makes the audience do a lot of stretching – that it was important that our set not do that,” Mansoor said. “It has to be really grounded, really specific, and always feel like the sisters’ porch. And we also want to prepare the audience for the play they are about to encounter,” Mansoor said.
The triangle was a natural “because of the trinity, the three sisters,” he continued. “And what I’ve learned is, staging on a triangle is heaven. I’m loving it. It took me a moment to realize it was a thrust. And the second that happened, I saw that anytime there are people staged within a triangle, it’s beautiful to look at.”
The raised triangle would seem to put the cast in a precarious space as it narrows, even though it sits on a cushion of astroturf.
If there’s a balancing act going on, both physically and emotionally, the director is not worried.
“I feel our actors are athletic not only in a body way but even how they go after the text,” Mansoor said.
Playing the three sisters are Julianne Avolio as Genevieve, Moira Quigley as Isabel, and Lisa Velton Smith as Ann, with Tim McGeever and Jerreme Rodriguez as the men in their lives, Cary Anne Spear as their mother, and Taylor Knight as “Faceless Ghost.”
When Plano made its way off-Broadway in 2019, Sara Holdren of New York Magazine could barely contain her use of adjectives to describe the “Tilt-A-Whirl sense of reality.” She summed up Plano as “a fiercely smart contemporary dream play — to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin, a ‘realism of a larger reality.’ “
That was when the play was seen inside a traditional theater.
A characteristic of the setting in Pittsburgh is the greater outside world of host Bakery Square. For one thing, unlike many environments where Quantum has landed, they are in a space with heating and plumbing. And for another, there is the bustle and flow of the complex right outside the door.
“I love this as an environment for the play,” Boos said. “It’s even more than what Stephanie created, and it’s Bakery Square, too. We’re in a contemporary world where we’re all on a speeding train of things; it asks to look at things and make sure we like the ride we’re on.”
Quantum Theatre’s production of Will Arbery’s Plano is inside the former TechShop at 192 Bakery Square Blvd., East Liberty, April 1-24. Tickets and information: https://quantumtheatre.com/.
Categories: Show Previews