The Black Art of Dramaturgy

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

It's easy to see what attracted Boston Court Theater to playwright David Wiener's play Cassiopeia.

The play circles around two wonderfully socially awkward characters: one, a tweed coat wearing professor who grew up as a math prodigy - the kind of whiz kid who just gets numbers, he feels them. The second, an African-American maid Odetta who, in her own words, was born ugly. Her mother said to her early, "You better go to school and get smart. You better learn things because anyone can see you don't have womanly features."

This unlikely duo finds themselves crammed into adjoining airplane seats flying through a thunderstorm.

Great setup, right?

As the play unfolds we shift between scenes of the two trapped passengers and poetic narratives of the past. For the professor, it's the story of his love affair with science and an excuse to talk about gems like Schrödinger's cat. For Odetta, it's the story of growing up poor but industrious in the south.

These two are connected somehow. We just don't know how.

For all its promise, David Wiener's play comes with a few significant theatrical challenges. More than half the play has the characters recounting their past. At its best, it's poetic. But it feels more like a short story than a play. Drama is happiest, and most engaging, in the present.

Mr. Wiener also includes a third character...sort of. In the script she's named simply The Voice. (Note to directors and dramaturgs: when a playwright calls a character nothing more than "The Voice," proceed with extreme caution.)

One can imagine a mysterious, lurking figure haunting the play with the melodies of the past. Unfortunately, under Emilie Beck's direction, she's an amplified gospel singer that seems at odds with the plays subtlety. She emerges, at one point, from a massive floating door center stage - a dramatic, but unrealized, symbol.

And that's the problem with Boston Court's Cassiopeia, and frankly too much of their work: they fall in love with the ideas at the expense of the play.

At its heart, this is a simple, subtle play. It's a mystery play, where the audience weaves together the various threads to create the story. Without giving too much away, the revelation when it comes is less about the nature of the universe and more about a chance encounter between two lonely people.

Unfortunately, the production sets us up for a different expectation so when we reach the end of the 75 minutes it feels a bit hollow.

Now, I'm a big fan of Boston Court. They're doing some of the most interesting work in LA but too many of their productions fall prey to these same flaws. Their challenge is can they use the same dramaturgical chops they employ to pick these plays to produce them?

This is no easy hurdle's what separates a good theater from a great one.

Cassiopeia plays at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena through February 24.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 75 Minutes with no intermission

Banner image: Doug Tompos and PaSean Wilson in Cassiopeia. Photo by Ed Krieger, Boston Court