A Bright New Boise
by Samuel D. Hunter - directed by John Vreeke
October 10th - November 6, 2011
Nominated For Six Helen Hayes Awards
Outstanding Resident Play,
Outstanding Director John Vreeke
Outstanding Set Design, Lighting Design, Sound Design
and Outstanding Lead Actor
Samuel D. Hunter's compelling character drama is a nice foray into the aftermath of ruin and the beginning of redemption...
A disgraced evangelical from rural, northern Idaho takes a minimum-wage job at a craft store to re-unite with his estranged son
photos by Stan Barouh
Woolly’s illuminating ‘Bright New Boise’
Review by Peter Marks, Friday, October 21, 2011
The saddest moment on a Washington stage this year also happens to be one of the most exhilarating. It occurs in Act 2 of “A Bright New Boise” — playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s unsparing account of the hunger pangs in the barren American gut —when the blandest of bland men, superbly played by Michael Russotto, comes to the vague awareness that he’s responsible for no small amount of suffering.
“I think I might be a bad person,” moans Russotto’s Will, bathed in the harsh florescent light of a break room in a big-box Idaho crafts store. As he cups his face in his hands and begins to sob, you are made to feel enormous pity for him, despite the reckless piousness with which he’s consoled himself, a religious certitude that has contributed to terrible hurt for others in his life.
Nothing is pretty about “A Bright New Boise,” a play that marches in the footsteps of Sam Shepard’s acid comedies, set in the weird American West. Yet, you’ll find substantial beauty in Woolly Mammoth’s production, beginning with the mysterious, magnetic ordinariness Russotto manages to project, and extending to the exceptionally fine-tuned performances director John Vreeke elicits from the rest of the cast: Kimberly Gilbert, Joshua Morgan, Emily Townley and Felipe Cabezas. Michael Willis and Michael Glenn, meanwhile, are suitably tranquilizing as a pair of dull types from the central office who drone monotonously on a videotape on the employees’ break room TV.
Even Misha Kachman’s detailed set, with parking-lot light poles towering above the store like electric redwoods, seems to elevate utilitarian American design to something like accidental art. (The lighting by Colin K. Bills is also used to optimal effect.) In a workplace that serves as a bulwark against imagination, it’s no wonder Hunter’s characters include Cabezas’ Leroy, a college art student and part-time salesman whose portfolio largely consists of T-shirts emblazoned with obscenities.
Corporate torpor is a popular motif in American plays and films, and frequently takes on a sinister cast, whether in the social comedies of Neil Labute (“Reasons to Be Pretty”) or a movie thriller like “One Hour Photo” — set in a discount store so sanitized it makes a Target look like an outdoor flea market. So Hunter, a New York playwright who was raised in rural Idaho, is not unveiling a dehumanizing environment that we have not seen before. You’ll no doubt find familiar the undercurrent of menace that infuses the banal décor of the Hobby Lobby chain store, in which the play takes place.
But Hunter has such highly sensitive antennae for the look and rhythm of mundane places that “A Bright New Boise” develops an authentic texture, separate from other pieces in its genre. Each voice in the play, with Vreeke’s encouragement, is distinct and remains true to itself. The singsong of the suits on closed-circuit; the potty mouth of the store manager, Townley’s Pauline; the high-pitched anxiety of Gilbert’s socially inept loud talker, Anna; the disconcerting lack of affect shown by young Alex, expertly embodied by Morgan; these collectively contribute to the mosaic Hunter assembles, of what feels at once as if it’s all too emblematic of a desiccated culture — and all too creepy.
The play, though, is essentially Will’s. In the guise of the kindly looking Russotto, Will’s an innocuous presence, a guy no more special than the Styrofoam and cardboard stuff filling the store aisles. He’s hired on the spot by Townley, terrific here as a supervisor with more on the ball than you’re initially led to think. Soon enough, some disturbing history is revealed about Will’s association with a renegade church in northern Idaho — and a horrible past incident involving a young parishioner that turned the congregation’s members into pariahs. But escape into anonymity is not the entirety of Will’s mission at the Hobby Lobby. It’s a more personal quest whose nature won’t be divulged here.
The piece, in a sense, is about the havoc that can be wreaked by blind, even vengeful faith, in this instance to a church wrapped up in a prophecy of apocalypse. As the drama unfolds, Will slowly lets his co-workers in on his vision of the Rapture that he’s depending on coming soon, an End of Times that’s bleak and fierce and punitive — a satisfying fantasy for a man who seems to have known nothing but disappointment.
The playwright, fortunately, leavens the lugubrious aspects of Will’s fervor with the risible absurdities of miserable minimum-wage workers forced to keep the paying customers happy. And always, the production benefits from the presence of Russotto, a veteran Woolly Mammoth actor who might be giving the best performance of his career. It’s both delicate and dark, a portrayal that reminds that no matter how long you’ve lived, you never, ever know what’s really going on in someone else’s head.
That inscrutability is kind of a charm for Russotto, for in Will’s desperate dilemma — muddled about everything, except the end of the world — you feel for him, to a surprising degree. Watching as Russotto stands in the Hobby Lobby parking lot, screaming Will’s curses on humanity over the deafening sound of the interstate, you don’t sense a man’s malevolence as much as his petulant surrender.
Review by Peter Marks, Friday, October 21, 2011, The Washington Post
A Bright New Boise, by Samuel D. Hunter. Directed by Woolly Mammoth Theatre company member John Vreeke. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound and music, Chris Baine; video, Aaron Fisher; dramaturge, John M. Baker. With Michael Willis, Michael Glenn. About two hours. Through Nov. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.
Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.
A divinely inspired heartland comedy
directed by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company member John Vreeke
A Bright New Boise, Review by Jayne Blanchard, October 17, 2011
Giddy-up Armageddon! could be the rallying cry for evangelical misfit Will (Michael Russotto), the sad-sack hero of Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, a divinely inspired heartland comedy directed by John Vreeke.
Will has moved to the big city of Boise from a small Idaho town to reconnect with Alex (an achingly tormented Joshua Morgan), the son he gave up for adoption. As it turns out, he is also lying low after a tragedy at his “end of days” church shattered his world. All he has left is his faith—and his unshakable confidence that The Rapture is coming any day now and will whisk him away from his humdrum life. From the empty parking lot of a big box store, he bellows “Now! Now!” up to God like a born-again Stanley Kowalski howling to Stella.
His mind may be filled with vivid images of the thundering hooves of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and bustling suburbs reduced to ashes, but his existence couldn’t be more mundane. He, like the other characters in Mr. Hunter’s play, is trapped as a blue-vested employee of a fictional craft store, Hobby Lobby. We never see what goes on in the store, but watching the way Will and his fellow employees cling to their time in the anonymous break room as if it is a life raft tells us volumes about how soul-destroying this particular retail drudgery must be.
The break room—a cinder block oasis so existential you expect Vladimir and Estragon to pop out of one of the gray lockers—is a ripe comedic fodder. A corporate TV feed featuring two talking heads (the hilariously deadpan Michael Glenn and Michael Willis) drones on in the corner, sometimes inexplicably interrupted by footage of gruesome medical procedures. The trash-mouthed manager Pauline (Emily Townley, her natural glamour disguised in a hard mask of corporate efficiency and rage) bursts in and out of the room, her face pursed like a fist as she deals with crises real and imagined.
Here, the employees gather, all at odds with society in some way or another — the sweet, retiring Anna (Kimberly Gilbert, so gifted at playing young women profoundly uncomfortable in their skin and prickly about brushing up against other people); Leroy (an intense and chafing Felipe Cabezas), a slacker artist whose art involves deliberately making people uncomfortable, and Alex, a smart and panic attack-prone adolescent whose angst-riddled musical compositions are alone worth seeing Bright New Boise.
At the center of this clump of comic losers stands Will, who seems on the surface to have it more together than the rest as he pounds out Christian apocalyptic fiction on his laptop during breaks and placidly reacts to all the pettiness and mayhem around him. However, you soon find out he’s living in his car, is practically convulsed with guilt over what happened at his former church, and his attempts to reconcile with Alex are wildly awkward at best.
What’s interesting about the character of Will (and Mr. Russotto’s performance, which renders the mild-mannered magnetic) is that beneath this seemingly composed exterior roils a smugness and ego that he is one of the chosen people and he is firmly on the right side—and will soon get his reward in the afterlife for the pain and banality endured on earth. For all this, Mr. Hunter does not take the easy way out and aim pot shots at fundamental Christians and their beliefs, as tempting as it may be. Instead, he portrays Will as a religious man who simply cannot function in the real world. He’s out of step until he can walk with Jesus.
The contrast between big issues and small lives is rendered in Misha Kachman’s amazing set, which pits the fluorescent-lit isolation of the small break room against a seemingly endless horizon of storm clouds, thunder and lightning and the hum of interstate highways and urban noise. In this place, the divine and the commonplace intersect—where the afterlife is a tantalizing prospect, while life on earth holds prospects for closeness and connection that may be equally so close and yet so out of reach.
A Bright New Boise runs thru Nov 6, 2011 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC
A thoughtful, nuanced take on religious fervor.
Review by Sophie Gilbert
Barack Obama may have been vilified for suggesting in 2008 that dissatisfied Americans cling to religion for comfort, but Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, currently playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, suggests the President was on to something. After all, when life deals you the kind of bum hand in which you’re a middle-aged man making $7.25 an hour working for a craft-store chain, doesn’t the idea of eternal bliss provide some consolation? As Will, the protagonist of Boise, puts it, “Without God, I’m just a terrible father who works in a Hobby Lobby and lives in his car.”
Will (Michael Russotto) is a mild-mannered, middle-aged former pastor with a dark past. He skates over it in a job interview with craft-store manager Pauline (the excellent Emily Townley), but it’s clear from his uncomfortable demeanor that something troubles him—particularly when he blurts out to teenage Hobby Lobby employee Alex (Joshua Morgan) that he’s the father who put Alex up for adoption years earlier. Alex, a possibly on-the-spectrum youth plagued by panic attacks, alcoholic adoptive parents, and a physicality so awkward it’s almost painful, is unimpressed with the reality of the father he built up in his imagination as a successful man of mystery. However, his longing for a connection with somebody leads to a tentative relationship between the two, fueled by Will’s attempts to understand his son through listening to Villa Lobos and Alex’s excruciating beat poetry.
Directed by John Vreeke, Hunter’s take on our inevitable search for the meaning of life is subtle, nuanced, and funny. While Will draws hope from religion, other characters take solace in the very different pillars of art and corporate America. Pauline, a foul-mouthed, wickedly efficient devotee to the rewards of hard work and capitalism, takes no nonsense from any of her employees apart from Leroy (Felipe Cabezas), Alex’s older brother, an artist and the only person working at the Hobby Lobby who knows anything about art supplies. Leroy designs T-shirts emblazoned with profanities, and delights in making people uncomfortable—with the exception of his younger brother, of whom he’s hugely protective. When Alex has a panic attack after a confrontation with Will, Leroy grabs his hand and engages in an unspecified game. “Chagall?” Alex asks. “Kandinsky,” Leroy replies. It’s a brief moment, but a clever nod to the only thing Leroy believes in.
Misha Kachman’s set is a microcosm of middle America—on one side, a generic break room equipped with Utz chips, CoffeeMate, lockers, and other emblems of the workplace; and on the other, four vast streetlights shining down on an empty highway. Between scenes, the loud, emotive sounds of traffic fill the stage. The eerie loneliness of the set is heightened by Will, who’s kind to his coworkers while apparently dreaming of a rapture that will tear them all to shreds. Boise is the first play in a season of Woolly Mammoth productions centered on the end of the world, and it’s an extraordinarily thoughtful show, evoking the vast suburban emptiness of so many unnamed places. At times, however, the play could benefit from a faster pace—Russotto’s quiet measuredness adds depth to his character, but also occasionally causes the action to drag a little.
Hunter, an Idaho native, based the show on his own experiences with religion, where faith is a consolation for an unhappy existence and Armageddon a nicely misanthropic way to enact revenge on unbelieving enemies. At times, the religion message feels a little overplayed (“There are greater things in life. There have to be,” Will tells his son), compared with the subtlety of the other themes suggested (in typically gory Woolly fashion, a television onstage flits between excruciating corporate slogans and what appears to be videos of surgical procedures). As for the play’s main location, the Hobby Lobby seems to serve as a nice metaphor: People devote themselves to the art of making something tangible out of scraps, and pay for the privilege of doing the work themselves. Sound familiar?
"A Bright New Boise" See It Now.Now.Now.
Review by Kyle Osborne, October 19, 2011
If you’ve ever cried out, “Take me now, God” in the midst of a soul-killing traffic jam on I-95, you were weren’t even half as discontented as Will (Michael Russotto)who makes that same plea a loud and literal prayer in “A Bright New Boise,” at Woolly Mammoth Theater.
Will has just moved to Boise from “Up North,” where he is obviously trying to leave a dark past behind him. He has landed, of all places, as a cashier at the Hobby Lobby (a big box craft store—like Michael’s) where he works for $7.25 an hour.
The majority of the play takes place under the dingy fluorescent gloom of the employee break room, where Will’s co-workers include an eccentric loner, played to perfection by Kimberly Gilbert, and the wonderfully profane manager Pauline, played by Emily Townley with such naturalism that you’d swear the producers kidnapped her from a real Hobby Lobby and dropped her onto the stage just before curtain.
There are two other employees, one of whom Will has specifically come to see—but I don’t like to spoil plot twists—even when they happen early on, so I won’t mention them here.
Suffice to say that Will is not only running from something, he is also desperately running to something, and someone. Will is convinced that The Apocalypse is coming soon, but not soon enough to deliver him from the pain that is just beneath the pleasant exterior. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter doesn’t look down on non-believers nor true believers, but he does makes us curious about why some people should wish for the death and destruction of the planet and everyone on it, unless, perhaps, they really do see it as a “deliverance,” to paraphrase the Bible.
If you think the play is a downer, based on this brief synopsis, you’d be wrong. The laughs are plentiful and hearty and based more on the characters’ clumsy communication than their beliefs. If you’ve ever been to that part of the country, it’s easy for your mind’s eye to complete the already wonderful sets and envision a beautifully desolate place that harbors as many “weirdos” as it does “salt-of the-earth” types, regardless of their religion. The Northwest is a strange and gorgeous place, populated with "chracaters," as one might euphemistically call them. Hunter's play captures those "types" with pinpoint accuracy and it's fun to watch them here.
Michael Russotto is given the difficult task of concealing more than he’s revealing and plays Will with just the right tone. His character’s most deeply held feelings have to come out in tiny drips and drops until, finally, he can only look up to the heavens and plead, with much more agony than any commuter has ever felt, “Now. Now! Now!!! Now!!!!”
Vreeke was the director of "A Bright New Boise," a play featured at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company that has received six Helen Hayes nominations, including outstanding director.
This is your fifth outstanding-director nomination. How does it feel?
It's excellent. ... It's always a really great surprise and it feels terrific when you get nominated.
What are we supposed to learn from this play?
To boil it down to a kind of single sentence, I think it's that you have to be careful to recognize that belief systems can really get in the way of a fulfilled life.
Tell us more.
Well, the character that Michael Russotto portrayed is a man who in theater culture -- which I don't want to make any assumptions, but you know generally leans left -- it's a character I think more often than not is put up for ridicule because he's an extreme evangelical fundamentalist. ... In this case, Michael was able to achieve through [the playwright] writing a hugely sympathetic man who you just feel so strongly for who's trapped in a belief system that can only make his life worse. ... It creates a kind of understanding in all of us that in a way we are all kind of victims of belief systems that we were raised with and that we hold on to.
How did you make the setting -- the break room and parking lot of a Hobby Lobby -- come to life as director?
You can imagine what those rooms look like: very sterile, folding chairs, folding tables, maybe some lockers for employees, stuff on the counter, maybe with coffee and a vending machine. ... Then you look at the script and say, "Oh we need a little area to represent a parking lot." ... So [the set designer] created these beautifully sculptured parking lot light poles that went all the way up Woolly's two and a half stories.
Courtney Zott, The Examiner
Preparing for the apocalypse at a big box store
Review by Chris Klimek • October 21, 2011
The End isn’t nearly nigh enough for Will, the salvation-seeking wretch at the center of Samuel D. Hunter’s dark but deeply empathetic comedy, A Bright New Boise. As embodied by Michael Russotto in a masterful, layered performance as free of condescension as Hunter’s Obie Award-winning script, Will is the keeper of loneliness so palpable we can feel it before he’s uttered a word. An Evangelical desperate for Armageddon to arma-geddonwithit, he’s too skittish and guarded to be likable, but you’ve no heart if you don’t end up loving him.
When we meet him, he’s muddling through a job interview at the big-box arts and crafts store Hobby Lobby, trying not to be distracted by the surgical videos that mysteriously appear on the break-room television. (It’s supposed to be showing an employee propaganda video, which we see in snippets later.) Sound designer Chris Baine’s white-noise pattern of passing cars and set designer Misha Kachman’s parking-lot light towers convincingly evoke the Best Buy and (formerly) Borders-bedecked nowheres abutting eight-lane stretches of asphalt all over America. No wonder Will feels so little connection to this ugly, temporary world. A low-wage retail job might be the only employment open to him in the wake of a well-publicized scandal at the church of which Will was a senior member, but he has a specific and compelling reason for wanting this one.
“I’ll bring you on full-time as soon as I can,” the manager (a profane but tender Emily Townley) tells him. “Until then, you work 38 hours a week.” Exploitative corporate employers aren’t the target here though, nor, more surprisingly, is fundamentalist Christianity. That’s because Hunter isn’t interested in targets. What Raptures his indelible scenario far above lazy satire is the way it affords each of its five characters—all Hobby Lobby employees—their dignity. Hunter refuses to mock these people for actually caring about, variously, their faith, their art, or their job, which makes his matter-of-fact observations of their motives and behavior even funnier. It also gives us an emotional stake in their fates. It’s a superb piece of writing.
The company is as rich as the material. Townley finds notes of sympathy in the beleaguered boss who could easily be a stock villain. Joshua Morgan—half of the very funny duo Assembly Required—here matches his strong dramatic turn in Arena Stage’s The Chosen earlier this year as Alex, a tightly wound kid who composes avant-garde music and avoids small talk at work by pretending not to speak English. Felipe Cabezas is his protective foster sibling, the biological son of the drunks who adopted Alex. He sees his job as an ongoing, confrontational performance-art project, forcing old ladies to drink deep of his homemade “FUCK” T-shirt if they want his expertise in choosing quilting supplies. Woolly regular Kimberly Gilbert plays Anna, a girl who isn’t allowed to read at home in her dad’s house. She takes a shine to Will after he confides in her about the online novel he’s publishing, a Left Behind-style eschatological serial.
For all his yearning for the next world, Will has a mission to fulfill in this one that believers and non- should find equally important. As the sky darkens above the Hobby Lobby’s sodium halo, his problems become our problems. In an age wherein secular and evangelical people increasingly talk about rather than to one another, a comedy wherein they’re forced to share a break-room microwave feels more urgent than any pedantic issue play. None shall know the day or hour.
A Bright New Boise...
The result sparks something spectacular
Review by Charlotte Asmuth - October 17, 2011
If you read anything these days, on the internet or otherwise, you’ll find that America is declining, downsizing and generally muddling through a recession. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is devoting this season to staging plays that explore the following question: “Does our civilization have an expiration date?”
Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise, directed by John Vreeke, opens under fluorescent lighting courtesy of Colin K. Bills. Pauline (Emily Townley) is interviewing Will (Michael Russotto), who has applied for a job at the local Hobby Lobby craft store that she manages in Boise, Idaho. Townley is riveting as the crass Pauline, who laughs at her own jokes, sticks her prehensile tongue out, disparages workers’ unions and won’t let Will get a word in edgewise in his own job interview. “I’ll put you on full-time as soon as I can. Until then you work thirty-eight hours a week,” Pauline cheerfully tells Will.
Hunter’s play has a frustrating push-pull dynamic, alternately drawing me in and then pushing me back with its affected plot points. Will tells his young, asocial co-worker Alex (Joshua Morgan) some news about his father at the close of the first ten-minute scene. Shortly after, another co-worker, Leroy (Felipe Cabezas), corners Will and tells him some more family news and that Will should steer clear. It’s the nuances that this production gets just right. Russotto’s soft-spoken, patient, hesitant Will, an excellent listener, is not your ‘typical’ fanatic. When his tight-lipped, hunched co-worker Anna (Kimberly Gilbert) begins to bond with Will after hours in the Hobby Lobby break room, he allows that he is working on a book online (“Holy crap! You write books? I read books!” she says). After he has read a working excerpt to her and Anna tears up, telling him it was “amazing,” he tells her that it is inspired by his faith. “I’m Christian…what else is there to believe in?” Anna says, shrugging it off. It is only when Will reveals the extent of his faith and his readiness to embrace the potential Rapture that Anna feels cheated out of a rare moment of genuine emotional honesty. I can sympathize; the same feeling came over me.
The acting was terrific! Joshua Morgan is a gifted actor who can convey the instability of his character physically (when Alex is in the throes of a convulsive panic attack) and through a taunting, yet insecure, monotone delivered with his eyes slanting downwards. Kimberly Gilbert does neurotic so well; it is touching and hilarious to watch her Anna talk halting circles around herself in her search to find intimacy with others. Felipe Cabezas is eery as the wound-up provocateur Leroy; how can we trust someone who gets his kicks from deliberately making others uncomfortable?
Misha Kachman’s set and Chris Baine’s sound design ably evoke two scenes – a barren parking lot replete with humming lights, the sound of cars passing in the distance, ominous clouds crashing into each other above and chirping crickets and the break room of the craft store, where the employees, clad in blue vests with name badges affixed to them (designed by Ivania Stack), lash out at each other. A TV sits perched atop two adjoined lockers running continuous footage of two higher-ups in the Hobby Lobby company (Michael Willis and Michael Glenn) touting the virtues of their business as if it were a community bulwark. The footage is frequently interrupted by video of ongoing surgeries at a local hospital. Somehow, faith, or something like it (Pauline’s version of it), has designed to cross wires with science within the four walls of a craft store in the Midwest. The result sparks something spectacular.
"A Bright New Boise": Emotional Depth
Review by Don, October 20th, 2011
Woolly Mammoth’s A Bright New Boise takes a look into the heart of those who seem excited to see the world come to an end and brings us along for the ride. Which you might think would be a huge and momentous ride, given that the end of everything might be kind of a big deal. But writer Samuel D. Hunter’s conclusion seems to be that its precisely because the day to day stakes are so low that someone might seek something so momentous. Not to mention final.
One person’s longing for judgment would make for pretty thin gruel, but Hunter’s script does what well-plotted emotional fiction should: tells a contained, interesting story that has echoes and implications far beyond what is purely on the page. The sketch is simple. Soft-spoken Will comes to town with a deliberately hidden past and gets a job at the Hobby Lobby. He works along side sharp and crass manager Pauline and three younger staff members, none of whom know what connects one of them to Will or his surprising past. Yet.
What Hunter put down on the page is realized deftly all over the stage. Michael Russotto plays Will’s outward calm and the inner uncertainty and turmoil it almost perfectly covers, never letting the contradictions that constitute him seem unreal. Townley and Cabezas make characters that might have been very one-note story devices into characters with depth and who show character development of their own. Alex is a believable troubled teen, and while we’re never quite sure what’s going on with him Joshua Morgan sells us that Alex doesn’t know either.
Kimberly Gilbert walks a tightrope almost as fine as Russotto. Her Anna turns out to be the counter to Will, twitchy and nervous where he’s reserved, grappling with some of the same questions and problems but picking solutions that couldn’t be much different. The emotional depth both bring is what lets the play work, and Gilbert is in some ways filling the Ginger Rogers role here – doing all the same moves as her partner, but with the added challenge of doing it all in heels and backwards. When your character is brooding over his plot point of a hidden past you’ve got something of a leg up on selling inner depth and conflict. Gilbert has to convince us that her flighty screwup has something more going on and she does so brilliantly.
If you’re feeling a little under-served in plot details here, good. A Bright New Boise is without question a character piece first, but I’m convinced that coming in and learning what’s going on at the same time as the characters is the best way to follow their arc. I’d suggest you take someone with you to talk about it afterwards, though. It’s killing me to keep from peeling the onion, as it were, right in front of you.
Still Waiting for the Rapture
‘A Bright New Boise’ is a bleakly comedic take on a boring life
Some people escape the banality of everyday life with gaming; others by drinking too much gin. In Samuel Hunter’s dark comedy “A Bright New Boise,” the main character, Will (Michael Russotto), finds comfort in religion — more specifically, in fervently praying that the Rapture will happen and that he’ll be zapped away from his humdrum life.
This darkly funny musing on workplace politics and family ties isn’t out to mock the devout, but to explore how our beliefs help us — and sometimes hinder us.
In this case, we’re talking about a pretty dull existence: Will works in a Hobby Lobby store in Boise, Idaho, where his co-workers include a foul-mouthed T-shirt artist and a mild-mannered love interest, Anna (Kimberly Gilbert).
“When you’re thinking about the apocalypse, the visual
the white-walled break room of this big-box store,” says Hunter, who
set the entire play in the employee lounge and the parking lot. “It
makes you understand the hell and drudgery this character wants to be
saved from.” By creating a character whose only chance for happiness
seems to lie in rather extreme religious views, Hunter gives some
insight into where fringe beliefs come from. “The idea is that the
apocalypse gives this comfort to him about his control over eternity,”
While Will yearns for those Four Horsemen to take him away, he’s still present in the mundane world, trying to reconnect with his long-lost son and writing Christian fiction online. “There’s a real interweaving of the divine and the ordinary,” Hunter says of “Boise,” for which he won an Off-Broadway Theater Award for playwriting this year. “The play just allows both of those worlds to coexist.”
The play also contains hilarious bits about “Hobby Lobby TV,” the in-house channel which accidentally picks up horrific, graphic shows about medical procedures, as well as heartfelt discussions of what it means to be a parent, a spouse and even a churchgoer. Whether Will (or the audience) ever meets those horsemen seems beyond the point — the play is more about life than the afterlife.
- - -John Vreeke, A Bright New Boise’s director, has helmed many Woolly productions including Gruesome Playground Injuries, Boom, Our Lady of 121st Street, and Homebody/Kabul. He has received four Helen Hayes nominations including Best Director and has worked in other area theatres including Theater J, Forum Theatre, and the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences.
Thinking inside the box
By Stephanie Merry
Just as Irish expatriate James Joyce so often portrayed the bleak cityscape of Dublin and William Faulkner conveyed the distinctive Southern flavor of Mississippi, Idaho native Samuel D. Hunter has depicted his old stomping grounds time and again. More specifically, the playwright favors a precise setting within his home state: the florescent-lit confines of a big-box store.
Past plays have spotlighted characters at Walmart and Fashion Bug, and "A Bright New Boise," which opens at Woolly Mammoth Theatre on Monday, sets its existential story in the break room of a craft chain called Hobby Lobby.
"Probably the roots of it are I worked at Walmart when I was in high school," says Hunter, who now lives in New York. "I also think it's a really great comedic setting. The culture of these big-box stores is at once terrifying and hilarious."
Those divergent descriptions could also be applied to Hunter's plays, which tend to defy categorization. When "Boise" premiered at the Wild Project in New York's East Village last year, critics (who offered positive feedback across the board) had a hard time pinning it down.
"Some reviews said it was a quiet family drama, and others said it was a bouncy black comedy," Hunter says.
The play follows Will (Michael Russotto), who flees his home town after a scandal and takes a job at the Hobby Lobby in order to meet his estranged son, Alex (Joshua Morgan). To complicate things, Will is a fundamentalist Christian who thinks the Rapture is imminent. Will's religious fervor, however, is not the low-hanging fruit for comic relief (that falls to fellow workers). Instead Hunter uses the religious context to explore more serious questions, which he found himself asking after watching a documentary about Fred Phelps, the vocal pastor of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church known for picketing soldier funerals.
"How does somebody with extremist religious views change a tire or go shopping for groceries?" Hunter says he wondered. "How does their daily life interact with these beliefs?"
This seems like a particularly thoughtful response to the infamously homophobic Phelps, especially considering that Hunter is gay. But maybe that will be a lesson to theatergoers with preconceived notions about those touting doomsday scenarios. Hunter, for his part, says he had no intention of portraying Will as some kind of evangelical caricature.
"The last thing I want people to think is I'm writing a play that's going to validate their judgments of Christian people," Hunter says. "What I see right now is a deep misunderstanding, culturally, of religious people and especially people who are fundamentalist Christian."
The playwright actually attended a fundamentalist Christian school growing up, which he says provided a great education but also contributed to his sense of being an outsider.
"I was in a place where I was trying to negotiate who I was with everything around me," Hunter says. "This [play] is the reverse. The guy at the center is a Christian who doesn't understand the secular world and can't function within it."
But even as the plot covers big issues in a giant, sprawling setting, the story also works on a more intimate level.
"Beyond the play's theology and comedy and big-box store stuff and big, huge ideas, there's a core, very simple, very human story about a father trying to reconnect with his son," Hunter says. "And I think that's important to keep in mind."