Under the Veil Literally under Main Street in Deep Ellum, director Katherine Owens and the rest of Undermain Theatre are striving to make their 22nd season less realistic. It sounds strange for a company to aim for something less lifelike, but after last season's assault of super-serious drama (A Number by Caryl Churchill and Blasted by Sarah Kane were two of the more disturbing projects), there was a need to change things.
Enter Len Jenkin's Margo Veil: An Entertainment. Relying heavily on the audience to follow transitions between dream and reality, the story follows a young actress as she turns her back on New York City and makes her way home. Seems realistic enough...until you take into consideration the body-swapping, time spent as a blind Lithuanian girl, marriage to a magician, loads of gospel music, a variety of dances and 60 characters. "Last year was a strange season, very serious, totally realistic. [Margo Veil] is dark but also very funny," Owens says. "Illusion versus straightforward scenes. It's kind of a film noir."
Coming off of a realism trip and heading into illusion must require a severe change of pace when it comes to directing. Approaching the task, a director must ask an obvious question: Let the script speak for itself, or explain it all away? "It's one of those plays that once you start explaining it, you kind of wish you hadn't started," Owens says. "The actors are so phenomenal, I didn't have to work hard. I didhave to learn quite a bit about choreography, and many scenes had to be sketched...for positioning. You know, you're supposed to have a train and you can't have an actual train on stage, so how do you position people and things so that it looks like they're on a train?"
The ease of directing Margo isn't the only aspect of this production that seems kismet. The playwright himself brought Undermain the play after working with them previously and seeing the company perform in New York. A perfect situation, too, considering that Undermain is trying its hand at an unplanned season. Best not to have to hunt down a project. "We wanted to work with plays that are new, so we began working on a model that is not planning a season," Owens says, sounding excited about the new opportunities, even giddy. "It hinders subscriptions but favors creativity, so as long as we can afford it...And it is better for larger theaters if smaller ones are different." With this new "non-plan," the Undermain is proving one of those unspoken rules of the creative world: A certain amount of discomfort is good for the soul, good for the art.
And that are brings us back full circle to Margo Veil's mercurial plot. As Owens is describing the plot, procuring the play and the theatre's new goals, we find a parallel. The main character is leaving the city of acting, encountering a series of adventures as herself and even as another person--you know, real-life acting. And as it performs that very play, Dallas' tiny alternative theater company shuns a traditional program and sets out for its own adventures, incorporating other projects such as its Theatre Archive and World Theatre Day Celebration, while trying to, as Owens says, "make the world safe for theater."
If, like Margo Veil, the Undermain Theatre could have a plot summary or a even a moral for a central character, they'd be oddly similar. Central character embraces anti-reality in an effort to better understand and enhance real life. --Merritt Martin
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