Shakespeare, Sex, and Seafood: A Night Out at A.R.T.

ARTThe Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "Othello." Photo by Jenny Graham.

The American Repertory Theater’s 2019 lineup is as colorful as ever—here are five upcoming shows you won’t want to miss.

“Miss You Like Hell” 

Jan. 11 – 27, OBERON. Tickets start at $25.

Imagine Kerouac, Steinbeck, Faulkner, or whoever’s “road journey” narrative you read in school—but recast it with mother-daughter protagonists in a pickup truck. “Miss You Like Hell,” a new musical written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown, follows the story of 16-year-old Olivia and her estranged mother Beatriz, who suddenly re-enters her daughter’s life to bring her on a road trip. Their destination? Beatriz’s immigration hearing, where her daughter’s testimony could help make the case for her to stay in the United States. The show’s run at OBERON marks its New England premiere.

“Othello”   

Jan. 13 – Feb. 9, Loeb Drama Center. Tickets start at $35.

While A.R.T. is known for pushing the theater envelope, they still sprinkle their seasons with classical works. This year, it’s the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s rendition of “Othello,” the Shakespearean tragedy infamous for its themes of xenophobia and racism (which seem to speak directly to American audiences). This version is set contemporarily, with a diverse cast that complicates the play’s racial and cultural expressions. Bringing “Othello” to the Loeb is also particularly significant for director Bill Rauch—he went to Harvard as an undergrad, and directed some of his first plays on the Loeb Drama Center’s mainstage.

“Unf*ckable” 

Feb. 21, OBERON. Tickets start at $25.

Comedian and storyteller Desiree Burch can summarize her new one-hour solo show very neatly—“The show takes on sex, work, sex work, and how to keep sex from becoming work,” she told The List—but “Unf*ckable” is much more than raunch. Through colorful stories of Burch’s sexual partners and past as a “virgin professional dominatrix,” Burch discusses body image, race, and self-worth, attacking and dismantling stereotypes of black womanhood.

“Dragon Cycle”

Mar. 20 – Apr. 6, OBERON. Tickets start at $35.

After a well-received run at OBERON last spring, storyteller Sara Porkalob is back in Cambridge. She’ll be reprising last year’s show—“Dragon Lady,” the story of her “Filipino gangster” grandmother—and adding a new chapter in the form of “Dragon Mama,” a narrative that tells her mother’s story of “queer love in a barren land.” Both parts of the “Dragon Cycle” are solo musicals, sung and acted entirely by Porkalob herself—“Dragon Lady” alone demands that she assume 30 different roles.

ART

Endlings playright Celine Song. Photo courtesy of Celine Song.

“Endlings” 

Feb. 26 – Mar. 17, Loeb Drama Center. Tickets start at $35.

One of the standout productions in this season’s A.R.T. lineup is the world premiere of Celine Song’s “Endlings,” a play that was deemed “unproducible” by the playwright herself. The play, set on the Korean island of Man-Jae, follows the story of three elderly women who live out their final days diving into the ocean to harvest seafood. We talked to Song about how “Endlings” came to be, and what audiences can expect to see onstage this winter.

I know you don’t want to give too much away, but could you tell me a bit about the general action of the play?

It’s about three old women waiting to die, and one young woman trying to live. I think that’s a good summary for it.

“Endlings” is also about my immigration and what it’s like to be an immigrant. The young woman character is named after my Korean name.

How does “Endlings” represent the next step in your journey as a playwright?

I wrote this play thinking it was going to be the last play I’d write. I was going to quit being a playwright.

Why was that?

I was in a place where I was feeling like “I don’t know if this is the life for me.” Not because my life was going badly, because by playwriting standards I really wasn’t doing badly, but it was one of those things where I was like, “I can’t possibly do this anymore.”

Theater had broken my heart so many times. And—“Endlings” is kind of about this—theater is increasingly ruled by real estate and money, even though it asks the artists it employs to not care about real estate and money, which feels corrupt. Many theaters pay you nothing to do your work, and then they treat you like crap, while not taking any risks.

There are, of course, amazing advocates for your work at these off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway institutions who have read all of your work and come to all the readings, but they are almost always the ones without the power to program your plays. So when Diane Borger [A.R.T.’s executive producer] told me that she would like to take a risk on this play, I think that really brought back whatever faith I had in theater.

Did the fact that “Endlings” was supposed to be your last play change the way you wrote it?

Before, I wrote plays hoping that somebody would really do the play. “Endlings” is the first play where I was like “Oh, well, there’s no way anyone would ever do this play because it’s so hard and there are so many reasons why this is “unproducible.” So I was thinking that I was writing an unproducible play, and I was going to write whatever I wanted, because I knew that it was the last play that I would write.

Tell me more about the elements that make this play “unproducible.”

It is set in an ocean. It’s not one setting. And my cast is three elderly Asian women, which is a population that every casting department would be like, “That’s so hard to cast.”

What makes A.R.T. a good fit for you and this work?

That people are willing to do it here! And the people there are really willing to not just do it casually, but really do it with me. I think that’s what’s so amazing about my experience so far with A.R.T. They’re not just programming it begrudgingly, they’re really passionate about it. They’re passionate like me.

[“Endlings”] sort of has been the reason for so much of what has happened in my last year and a half of my career. I’m in a very, very different place than I was a year and a half ago, and that’s in part due to A.R.T. A.R.T. is this big, magnificent theater that does huge shows, and the last play that I had done was something that I had self-produced. It was a 50-person house, in a DIY-space in Brooklyn called JACK. So it’s an entirely different experience.

This was just going to be a play in my head. Anything that’s physically happening, I’m just so excited about.

Out of curiosity, how are you going to put an ocean onstage?

I think there’s going to be a body of water onstage. And that’s all I will say.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.

OBERON is located at 16 Arrow St. Loeb Drama Center is located at 64 Brattle St.

This story originally appeared in the Free Time Fervor issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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