He’s not much of a writer, he confesses, but he does enjoy dredging stuff up — and he’s got a memory that never fails as well as a $3 million advance on a book deal. That’s what we learn about an avuncular political operative at the start of a brief, alarming play called “Amateurs” by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Auburn.
What’s so alarming about it? The politico is as nice as can be until his reunion with the child of a former rival takes several shocking turns. We won’t spoil the overlapping surprises, but suffice to say the revelations in this 2010 play seem stolen directly from today’s headlines. Political campaigns — and political blackmail — are not games for amateurs, we learn in a single, powerful, 30-minute scene.
“Amateurs” is the longest and darkest of four short plays being presented on Saturday night in edgy, stripped-down style by Magenta Theater, which continues to look for ways to keep pleasing general-issue theatergoers while also growing past its “squeaky clean” image, according to founder and artistic director Jaynie Roberts.
That’s not a new thing, she said. Magenta first approached edginess a few years ago with a staged reading of “The Laramie Project,” which traces the aftermath of the notorious murder in Wyoming of gay college student Matthew Shepard.
After “Laramie,” Magenta kept presenting staged readings in what’s now called its “Black Chair Project.” A Black Chair production means minimal everything — props, sets, costumes, even direction and rehearsal time. Actors get familiar with their roles but never memorize their lines. They read from scripts throughout the play, and they’re dressed entirely in black.
If You Go
Four short plays in “Black Chair” format
• When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20
• Where: Magenta Theater, 1108 Main St., Vancouver
• Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door
“Voodoo Snowball,” a script by Gary Corbin
• When: 7 p.m. Jan. 25-26
• Where: Jan. 25 at Literary Arts, 925 S.W. Washington St., Portland (includes post-reading panel discussion with cancer survivors and counselors); Jan. 26 at Hipbone Studio, 1847 E. Burnside, No. 104, Portland
• Tickets: $10
In other words, Roberts said, with nothing to dazzle or distract, all attention is on the actors and the words. “They have to be great readers,” she said. “They are flying by the seat of their pants. It’s terrifying for the actors, and it’s a thrill for the audience.”
The other three plays in Magenta’s latest Black Chair presentation are all very brief, indeed — 10 minutes apiece — and penned by one appealingly oddball writer. David Ives’ inspirations appear to involve applying one absurd notion to a situation, and watching it play out.
In Ives’ “Sure Thing,” two young people meet and start falling in love — with the help of an offstage bell that keeps revising their reality by ringing out their conversational blunders and blind alleys. Again and again, they get the chance to start over. In “The Philadelphia,” a young man enters a zone of unreality where he can only get the opposite of what he asks for. And in “Words, Words, Words,” those three legendary “Hamlet”-typing monkeys get into conversation about their hopes, dreams and schemes.
There’s one show only. That’s part of the thrill, Roberts said.
The approach is slightly more fleshed out — and the subject matter deadly serious — in the upcoming premiere of “Voodoo Snowball” by prolific Camas novelist and playwright Gary Corbin. Like Magenta’s Black Chair performances, this “script-in-hand” production involves minimal props and a minimal stage set.
Corbin delved deep into his rustic family’s history of heroic humor and inevitable mortality in this 80-minute play about cancer. “I have three sisters who have survived cancer and my dad, who did not,” he said. “And I’ve had a few uncles on my dad’s side go down with lung cancer.
“They were loggers and construction workers and farmers in Maine, rough-and-tumble sorts of people. They had such strong and unique ways of dealing with the disease, they carried such great senses of humor through it,” Corbin said.
The title “Voodoo Snowball” came from a magical talisman — a joke — given to Corbin’s father, who hated snow. “It could drive away snow. It was a symbol for his fight against cancer,” Corbin said.
As you might expect, this material was tough stuff for Corbin to confront. Writing the script took five years, he said, and after he wasn’t satisfied with the first draft, he engaged with Northwest Theater Workshop, a new Portland outfit focused specifically on play and playwright development. Artistic director Ciji Guerin guided Corbin through a rigorous and scientific-sounding system she’s devised for script revision.
“It’s a butt-kicker,” Corbin said. “There’s a constant set of checks you go through every time you make a change.”
And, he said, even after two years of that, the script is “probably only semi-done.” Corbin is eager to see how audiences like the premiere of “Voodoo Snowball,” and hopes the show will wind up in full production. “I would love that,” he said.
Meanwhile, you can check out the script-in-hand version as part of the upcoming Fertile Ground theater festival in Portland.
“A lot of what Fertile Ground does is brand-new works and works in progress,” Corbin said. “The audience knows that. It’s exciting to see things that are so new. And, it’s an affordable $10 ticket.”