A Bright New Boise
May 31st – June 23rd, 2013
The cast includes company members Tim True,
Chris Murray, and Jacklyn Maddux and features guest artists Andy Lee Hillstrom and Kerry Ryan.
John Vreeke, company member of the esteemed Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C., directs.
Third Rail caps its "American Season" with A Bright New Boise Samuel D. Hunter's play is "subtle, nuanced, and funny" Third Rail is thrilled to introduce Portland to another Obie winner, Samuel D. Hunter, and his bright new comedy about some very serious things, A Bright New Boise. Something’s coming to make things right. Something’s coming to ease your pain. Something’s coming to set you free. Something’s coming . . . Something’s coming . . . Something’s here? What are the odds of God’s final act taking place in the parking lot of the local Hobby Lobby? Better than you might think.
'A Bright New Boise' shines at the WinningstadReview by Marty Hughley, The Oregonian
Outside, the Boise sky is a sun-saturated pale blue above brown-dry mountains. Inside, fluorescent fixtures cast a charmless glare over the break room of a Hobby Lobby. But for Will, the quietly troubled man at the center of Samuel D. Hunter’s play “A Bright New Boise,” being staged at the Winningstad Theatre by Third Rail Rep, neither counts as illumination. Will, who has taken a job at the store for reasons other than the $7.25 an hour, believes instead in a world remade, where the saved will themselves be “bodies of pure light.”
Will has come from “up north” -- where a tragic incident has stained the image of his congregation -- to what counts as the big, bad city, seeking a redemptive reconnection with Alex, the teenage son he lost to adoption. Like father, like son: Will prays for the Apocalypse, Alex threatens to kill himself, both so profoundly uncomfortable in the mundane world that they yearn for escape.
The nuances of nervousness and long-suppressed pain in the scenes between Tim True’s Will and Andy Lee-Hillstrom’s Alex form the gripping heart of this production.
The faith vs. art theme emerges in a struggle for influence over Alex, between the devout Will and confrontational art-student Leroy, Alex’s adoptive brother, played by Chris Murray with a mix of well-meaning protectiveness and juvenile arrogance.
Meanwhile, alternative belief systems of mainstream materialism and mainstream liberal religion are represented by, respectively, a practical yet foul-mouthed store manager (an offhandedly funny Jacklyn Maddux) and a lonely Lutheran store clerk (rendered perfectly, hilariously awkward by Kerry Ryan).
As schematic as this thematic breakdown might sound, the story itself plays out with a naturalness that slips gradually from humor to pathos, accruing emotional and philosophical resonances along the way. And the aptly ambiguous ending may leave Will in the dark, but offers audiences just the right light for self-reflection.
Review by Marty Hughley, The Oregonian
Man's Search for Meaning
Third Rail Gets Existential in A Bright New BoiseReview by Alison Hallett
THE ABSOLUTE WORST feeling to walk out of a theater with is "So what?" So what, you actors sure do like the sound of your own voice. So what, I did this instead of watching Arrested Development?
But it's rare to feel that way after a Third Rail show—their existence is a sustained argument for the ongoing relevance of theater as an art form, an argument I wish more companies were making.
Samuel D. Hunter's A Bright New Boise is a relatively new script (it premiered in New York in 2010), and a strong, interesting one. It's set in a big-box store in Boise, Idaho, but it doesn't condescend to the people who work or shop there; it balances mundane, workaday concerns and existential ones, asking questions about life's meaning in a world that never seems to provide any answers. Oh, and it's very, very funny.
Actor Tim True is a fucking local treasure, and he proves it here once again as Will, a quiet man with evangelical tendencies who takes a job at a Boise Hobby Lobby—in order, it turns out, to get closer to the son he gave up for adoption years earlier: angsty, misunderstood Alex, who also works at the store.
As Alex, Andy Lee-Hillstrom has two of the show's strongest moments: a long, captivating scene where the panic attack-prone kid tries to get his breathing under control, and a bit where he demonstrates his "performance art" to his dad that's quite possibly the funniest thing I've ever seen on a Portland stage. So funny I dropped my pen. Chris Murray brings satisfying depth to his combative character, the store's resident angry punk-rock art dude; Kerry Ryan's appealingly goofy as an oddball employee; and Jacklyn Maddux is grounded and great as the foul-mouthed store manager. There's not a wrong note in the cast, as Will tries to figure out what he wants more: for the world to end in cleansing, apocalyptic flames, or to get to know his son.
A Bright New Boise's stakes are cranked a bit high in its final scenes; whenever an otherwise realistic and well-observed play is interrupted by a dramatic plot twist, I feel as though the playwright is underestimating the audience's attention span, as though I couldn't be expected to sit through a simple drama about people struggling with faith in a hopeless world. But that's a quibble with the script, not the production; this is a best-case version of a play that intelligently situates age-old questions of meaning and faith within a modern context.
Review by Alison Hallett
The Portland Mercury
At Third Rail, a bright new beginning
On tech night, the wild and woolly particulars of 'A Bright New Boise' get a final turn of the screw
By: Bob Hicks
Published May 31, 2013, in THEATER
John Vreeke, director of Third Rail Repertory’s new show “A Bright New Boise,” smiles ruefully. “A lot of actors think a director is looking for something very specific,” he says. “They’re not. They’re just looking for something interesting.”
It’s Tuesday night at the Dolores Winningstad Theatre, Third Rail’s home space, and the search for something interesting is entering the home stretch. Tech night. Two hours of tough work, ratcheting things into place, followed by a full run-through and dissection afterwards. On Wednesday night, the first preview audience shows up.
Friday – tonight – is opening night. It’s the payoff for a long, exploratory, and sometimes extremely technical process that, like so much in the theater, is embedded in a contradiction: to feel free and easy, a show must also be tightly plotted and elaborately sprung. Too loose, and it’s sloppy. Too tight, and it loses its life.
On this tech Tuesday there’s excellent reason for optimism. “Boise,” by the rising young playwright Samuel D. Hunter, is rippling with interesting possibilities. The story, about a decent but obsessed man trying to reconnect with the 17-year-old son he abandoned as an infant, is biblical in its sweep and implications. It’s set in an American wilderness – the big-box retail world of low pay, low hopes, and dead-end jobs – and its hero is a man whose body is moving through the contemporary world but whose heart and mind are trapped inside the medieval terrors of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Will is waiting, praying, pleading for the Rapture: that glorious, awful moment when the saved will rise and the rest will be swept toward the fires of Hell. In a deep sense, “Boise” is about America’s lost mass of people who’ve been left behind, not by God, but by a swiftly moving culture they can’t keep up with. It’s about a hole of despair and America’s obsession with obsessiveness. But it’s told with humor and compassion and – this part’s important – respect for its lost but searching characters.
Will, the good medieval man, is played with a starkly moving balance of earnestness and wishfulness by Third Rail regular Tim True. The often electric ensemble also includes Andy Lee-Hillstrom as Alex, the kid who’s none too pleased to be reunited with his biological dad; Chris Murray as Leroy, Alex’s protective big adoptive brother; Kerry Ryan as Anna, a store clerk who hides in the aisles after closing so she can read alone at night; and Jacklyn Maddux as Pauline, the store manager who, a little like a theater director, keeps the whole improbable enterprise spinning.
Vreeke, who lives in Seattle but directs regularly for the rambunctious and renowned Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., is getting his second whack at the material. He also directed the second production of “Boise,” with Hunter deep in rewrites, for Woolly Mammoth, and he’s eager to get another crack at it.
Now the trick’s to make sure the telling of the tale runs smooth.
Vreeke stands stage left on the main floor, slotting himself between the far seat in the front row and a runway-like stage extension that juts into the auditorium. Above him, True and Lee-Hillstrom are running softly through a crucial scene. “What was Mom like?” Lee-Hillstrom demands. True stays silent for a moment, a little taken aback. While they’re going over their lines, technical director Demetri Pavlatos, hammer in hand, is pounding away at a recalcitrant door handle, prying it off. Bang-bang-bang. He’s got to make sure the door swings right and stays closed when it’s supposed to be closed. Everything’s sotto voce, anyway. The first-tier side section stage left is a garage worth of handyman clutter, from paint cans to carpenter’s level to power tools to shop vac. At this point in a production, lots of stuff happens, sometimes noisily, on separate and sometimes overlapping mini-stages.
Vreeke, who’s 63 and has about 40 years of this sort of evening behind him, is comfortable in a practical, on-the-job way. Worn jeans, blue jacket with the sleeves pushed up, low-cut sneakers, cardboard coffee cup in one hand. His gray hair and beard are slightly mussed in that I’ve-got-more-important-things-to-think-about way, and he’s listening closely. A working man at work. He watches as True and Lee-Hillstrom walk through a scene, suggesting small adjustments to the blocking and deliveries. “I was molested by my fourth-grade teacher,” Lee-Hillstrom begins. Backpack on, he walks quickly away from True, heading upstage into the parking lot. Then he turns and strides close into True’s space. The enormity of the moment sinks in, and True slumps onto the floor, leaning against the concrete post of a tall light pole that reaches above the third tier of the matchbox theater space. “OK! So, great! So, great!” Vreeke says. He turns to Lee-Hillstrom. “Now we’ll focus on you, young man.”
Most of “A Bright New Boise” takes place in the break room of a Hobby Lobby store on the concrete outskirts of town, and in the parking lot that abuts a freeway or thoroughfare that drones and blares and sometimes screams traffic sounds, like God wreaking vengeance on a wicked world. The room has a folding table and folding chairs, old fridge and decrepit microwave, a coffeepot and accouterments. A flat-screen TV with a balky signal alternates between vaguely inspirational sales pep talks by a couple of guys from corporate (Third Rail company members Damon Kupper and Isaac Lamb) and, weirdly, video clips of nose, ear, and throat surgery from a medical channel that keeps cutting in. All in all it’s a depressing place, but also, for the workers, a refuge and a solace. Like much of Idaho itself, it’s out on the edge. Wide open and innocent, sprawled over and spoiled. The concrete parking lot. The freeway whoosh. Human scars on a dry brown beautiful land. Designer Larry Larsen’s set includes a scrim wall so you can see, in certain lights, the shadowy promise of the mountains in the background.
In some ways the triple-tiered Winningstad Theatre is a familiar fit for Vreeke. Like Woolly Mammoth’s 250-seat theater in Washington, the Winnie isn’t a big hall to begin with. At full capacity it has 330 seats, but companies rarely use it that way, preferring to stretch the stage configurations and cut down on capacity: around 250 to 280 seats is more common. On tech night, the last few rows of main-floor seats are taken over by long tables for the designers and tech operators, further reducing the bandbox feel to a shake-hands-with-the-audience intimacy. Stretched along the length of the tables are five glowing computer screens, sound and light boards, a couple of gooseneck table lamps, various plugs and cords and smart phones, tissue boxes, snacks. Notebooks with color-coded markings. And quiet conversations about what still needs to be done, when. At the table are the people who keep things running and, with the actors and director, turn what began as a piece of writing into three-dimensional, multi-sensory art. Light board operator Jennifer Lin. Lighting designer Kristeen Crosser. Sound designer Cecil Averett. Stage manager Michelle Jazuk. Production manager and video engineer Cameron McFee. Video designer Isaac Lamb, the company actor who also plays one of the guys from corporate on the TV screen. Scenic designer Larsen. Also around and about are tech director Pavlatos, deck hand Jen Raynak, props master Drew Dannhorn, and artistic director Scott Yarbrough.
Everyone’s working hard, and everyone’s playing hurry up and wait. For the designers, there’ a lot of fiddling with cues. For the actors, there’s a lot of stopping and starting and re-doing and shifting, getting a newly revised sequence for a certain scene settled into their minds and bones. You can crack a joke one moment and be deep into a scene the next. While he’s working with the technicians, Vreeke’s also making adjustments with the performers. Your character’s 17 years old, he reminds Lee-Hillstrom. Be 17. Don’t be 29 acting like your 17. Same advice for the perpetual Peter Pan-faced Murray, who’s in his early 30s but is playing a 23-year-old: He looks the part, but needs to remember to shave a decade off the way he views the world. Murray’s known for keeping things loose on set, and every now and again he pulls out his smart phone and snaps photos of the other actors. (“These kids,” Vreeke says later, shaking his head and laughing. “They put everything on the Internet. I don’t understand it.”)
Vreeke runs a scene again, then talks to Lin and Crosser, the lighting team, about when to start a fade on Lee-Hillstrom. An extraordinary amount of choreography goes into any stage production, and any shift in time and place effects not only the performer but also the design: if an actor’s entrance is delayed, or he’s moved upstage or down, or if the space between performers is shortened or lengthened, then the light and sound have to follow suit, and that can complicate a well-plotted plan. It’s the director’s job to know what he wants. It’s the designers’ and techies’ job to know whether what he wants is practicable, and if so, how to make it work. The three talk it over quickly, and arrive at a solution. It’s the kind of little adjustment that’s both common and necessary at this stage of the game. “As long as I can get them in a good dark silhouette,” Vreeke says, satisfied.
Throughout the evening, similar periods of adjustment arise. “Could you bring the traffic noise up a little more obvious?” Vreeke asks Averett. Again: “Elevate the level of the Hobby Lobby video. AND, increase the volume on whatever that traffic noise is. So it gets almost painful.”
A good director is less a dictator than a diplomat, and those skills are especially apparent during tech, when all of the design elements are laid over the acting and everything has to mesh. This is the crucial point when you get the sound and light levels right, and the actors grow comfortable with the added dimensions. Vreeke has very specific ideas about how these things should be calibrated. When to fade. When to be intrusive. The designers and operators have little fiefdoms, and even a minor change requires a small dance, a tradeoff, an implicit acknowledgement that their space has been invaded. Pardon. This needs to be done. We can make it work. Each player must stick up for her or his territory, and also know when to yield for the greater good. For all the improvisatory feeling of a good production – that thrilling sense that a story’s being freshly discovered, like Miranda’s eyes alighting with delighted astonishment on her brave new world – things are carefully laid out beforehand. And sometimes, though not tonight, a director can ask for the stars when only the moon is possible. Sometimes it’s like the engineer telling the architect that something in the drawings just won’t work.
Or something needs adjustment, quick. At one point, Ryan and True are leaning against the folding table in the break room when – wham! – the tabletop snaps away from the legs and they tumble to the floor. A quick shock runs around the room. This is not part of the plan. The two actors scramble to their feet, laughing a little nervously. Pavlatos and Raynak hustle to the stage. The table has to be fixed. For the actors, it’s break time.
It’s taken a long time to get to this point of almost-readiness. “A Bright New Boise” was cast last June, almost a year ago. Design meetings began in August, and rehearsals started April 30. Even before that, artistic director Yarbrough and his team had to choose the play, which won a 2011 Obie for its initial production in New York before moving on to Woolly Mammoth, where it benefited from an extensive rewrite. The Portland script is essentially that one, with a few minor tweaks.
From its beginnings, Third Rail has looked to Woolly Mammoth as one of its models – “the aggressiveness of attacking material,” Yarbrough says. The Third Rail hits “Recent Tragic Events,” “Grace,” and “Dead Funny” all came from Mammoth. When Yarbrough decided to do “Boise” he called Mammoth’s artistic director, Howard Shalwitz, to get a take on how Woolly approached the script. Shalwitz told him that Vreeke was now living on the West Coast, and recommended him for the directing job.
“I’ve done maybe a half-dozen shows a second time,” Vreeke says. “Every time I’ve done that I’ve thought, ‘Why on Earth do I want to do this again?’ And every time I’ve been very happy with the chance to go deeper.”
In this case, the attraction was particularly strong. Hunter, the playwright, was on hand thoughout rehearsals for the Woolly production, working on extensive rewrites: “The second act was a shambles,” Vreeke says. Eventually Hunter decided to keep the ending that had bothered New York critics, but shore up the preparation for it. It’s a much better play now, Vreeke says, than when it began. And, having gone through one production that was focused on the writing, he liked the idea of doing a second that focuses on the performances.
Vreeke also likes that the play is so personal, not in its particulars but in the world that inspires it. Hunter, whose work Portland audiences also saw last summer when his play “The Few” had a reading at Portland Center Stage’s JAW new-plays festival, grew up gay and evangelical in Coeur d’Alene. “It’s his story,” Vreeke says.
Coming to the story a second time, Vreeke says, he did something unusual for him: Rather than begin the exploration of the script together with the actors, he laid down a lot of specifics from the beginning. He’d learned a lot about the play the first time around, and he wanted to start in Portland where he’d left off in Washington, D.C. Tone is essential, he says: “Usually characters of this sort are put up for ridicule.”
In Third Rail’s interpretation, they’re definitely not. Mind-boggling things occur, but they have an interior logic. And the cast clicks, moving easily from humor to anger to generosity and even little acts of heroism. The show has a sense of the absurd, but never of belittlement. It runs quickly, not in a blind rush like a pedal-down barrel across the Bonneville Salt Flats but more like a constantly shifting, efficiently smart run through an Italian mountain race course. Tonight, at tech, we’re seeing theater as a trade. From director to designers to technicians to performers, all of the roles are familiar and understood. You can go pretty much anywhere and fill in the same blanks. It’s how you fill them that makes the difference.
The run-through finishes, and Vreeke is happy but not satisfied. The evening’s ending, and he still wants to make some technical adjustments in the final scenes. But not tonight. Union regulations and common sense won’t allow it.
The window’s closing. Curtain for Wednesday’s first preview performance is 7:30, and that’s a lock. “But we’ll have an hour from 6 to 7, right?” he asks. “That’s good. That’ll be plenty of time to do what we need to do.”
Time’s running out.
But it’s not the end of the world.
Written by: Bob Hicks
Third Rail Rep illuminates questions of faith in
Samuel Hunter's 'A Bright New Boise'
By Marty Hughley, The Oregonian
The New York playwright Samuel D. Hunter grew up in rural Idaho and has a knack for honest, witty, non-condescending depictions of life between the coasts. Portland theater fans got a taste of his work during last summer’s JAW playwrights festival at Portland Center Stage with a deeply moving reading of his play “The Few,” about a trucker turned small-time journalist and his once-jilted, twice-shy ex grappling with questions of isolation and despair.
Now Third Rail Repertory Theatre shines a light on another Hunter play, “A Bright New Boise,” as its final production of the 2012-’13 season.
A 2011 Obie Award winner and Drama Desk Award nominee, “A Bright New Boise” is set in a common kind of American desert, the break room and the parking lot of a big-box retail store. As Hunter put it in a 2011 interview with PBS’ Newshour, the central character is a man “pining for the apocalypse, and so I need to put him in an environment where one would pine for the apocalypse.”
(It’s no doubt a coincidence that Hunter’s choice of retailer, the Oklahoma City-based chain Hobby Lobby, has been in the news recently, as the largest company to ask a federal appeals court for an exemption from a mandate to offer employee health coverage including access to morning-after birth-control pills. But as a self-described "biblically founded business" whose stores are closed on Sundays, it feels like a thematically apt choice.)
Into this fluorescent environment comes Will, who blurts out the truth about one aspect of his past -- that he’s the biological father of a 17-year-old clerk at the store -- but is loathe to talk about the church group that’s kept him away in the intervening years.
Third Rail artistic director Scott Yarbrough says that when he first read “A Bright New Boise” it reminded him of “Grace,” the terrific Craig Wright play the company staged in 2007, “in the way it’s grappling with faith and belief systems, and doing it in a way that’s respectful of the characters.”
Guest director John Vreeke previously directed “A Bright New Boise” in 2011 at Washington D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, one of Third Rail’s acknowledged models. When the play premiered in New York the previous year, reviews were positive but tended to complain about the ending. For the Woolly Mammorth production, Vreeke worked with Hunter on extensive revisions of the second act -- not changing the original ending but trying to lead up to it in a more satisfying way.
Despite working regularly in D.C., Vreeke -- a former associate producer of the TV show “Northern Exposure” -- lives in Seattle. When Yarbrough called Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz about the play, Shalwitz suggested talking to Vreeke.
“I had assumed that I would direct it,” Yarbrough says. “But John came down to see our production of ‘Penelope,’ and he spoke a language about the play and approaching text and working with actors that all really fit with how we try to do things.”
“I liked the idea of re-doing ‘A Bright New Boise’ with a full rehearsal processed that was focused really on the acting and not on script making,” Vreeke says. “And I think that’s resulted in a deeper, richer, more textured approach to the acting than I had the first time.”
Third Rail’s production stars company co-founder Tim True as Will, along with fellow company members Chris Murray and Jacklyn Maddux, plus Theatre Vertigo’s Andy Lee-Hillstrom and Kerry Ryan.
“In elements, I’m seeing some of the best work I’ve seen from our folks,” Yarbrough says. “I’m seeing colors in Tim’s performance I’ve not seen from him before.”
Those colors include Will’s vision of the break room and Boise alike reborn, “as a city of pure light...brilliant and eternal and unchanging.”
“It's easier to talk about these huge apocalyptic ideas when it's contextualized within something so daily and quotidian that people know and recognize,” Hunter told PBS.
That juxtaposition suits what Vreeke calls the play’s big theme. “When a person finds himself so deeply involved in a belief system that ultimately destroys his world, where does that leave him? What are his choices? It’s one of the few stories I’ve found that doesn’t ridicule wide-eyed fundamentalists who believe in the Rapture. It’s a very sympathetic look at this character.”
By Marty Hughley, The Oregonian