OK, here's a sample of the Dallas cast list for Undermain Theatre's world premiere (have I written that phrase often enough recently?) of Erik Ehn and Octavio Solis' stormy Texas tragicomedy Shiner. Let's see, there's Jeremy Schwartz, Dalton James, Rhonda Boutte, Christina Vela, and Max Hartman, who also has written some original music for the show. Readers who are familiar with this column will realize that director Raphael Parry has set up quite a challenge for himself with this multimedia production and this multiheaded beast of theatrical ability. How do you orchestrate this much awesome talent in one show without either causing the Undermain's basement pillars to crumble or the pages of the script to ignite until the whole point of the play is consumed in a bonfire of competitive vanities?
Undermain, of course, has long valued cerebral, contained collaboration in its cast rehearsals, and the genesis of Shiner, an Undermain commission, has a similarly reflective source. Playwrights Erik Ehn and Octavio Solis went on a journey together to the mountains of West Texas and Oklahoma, hiking and camping and talking. It was inspired by a previous trip Ehn took with Undermain ensemble members across the Texas-Mexico border for a set of plays called Beginner; but with Shiner, it was just two stage scribes, setting out to absorb experiences without explicitly discussing what they were going to write when they returned.
"The Undermain has long been interested in creating a theatrical map of Texas," says the shy, self-deprecating Ehn. "They're interested in the history of Deep Ellum, but more important, the whole of the state. When Octavio and I got together for our trip to West Texas and the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma, we ate interesting food, got in a car crash, stayed in a terrible motel, and gathered video images."
There is a plot, or at least a framework, to transform these experiences into the background for dramatic material, and it's a good deal more urgent and morbid than this peripatetic idleness suggests.
"Erik was working on a play about a Texas state corrections employee, an executioner, who flees his job because he's sick of death," says Octavio Solis. "And I was working on a play about the nature of evil called Bethlehem. When we got down to writing, we had no agenda on how they'd work together."
These two plays in progress, surgically joined, became the skeleton upon which the meat of the playwrights' traveling experiences was placed. Shiner concerns a modern-day hangman on the lam from the overbearing burden of his job. The executioner is pursued by a serial killer, a slayer of women, who must commit ever more heinous acts of violence in order to wrest the state-approved killer back to the job of killing. The footage taken by Ehn and Solis on the road and in the mountains isn't the only media influencing the show. Computer game maker ION Storm has agreed to design computer-graphic versions of the actors and incorporate them into the production, and the Shiner cast got together one Saturday to shoot a series of most interesting flicks to be included in the show.
"We made comical, silly, outrageous snuff films of the murderer killing his victims while wearing various death masks," Solis recalls. "We did eight murders in one day. It was sick and twisted, and it was great. I anticipated a video shoot to be long and arduous, but we just riffed and shot it."
When they got down to the actual scriptwriting, both Ehn and Solis admit it may be difficult to determine where one sensibility begins and the other ends. Certain whole scenes were written by one or the other, while other scenes they shared, handing the paper back and forth every few lines to finish the collaborators' ideas. But Erik Ehn provides a clue as to the source of any particular inspiration. It all comes down to style.
"Octavio has a more athletic sweep. He's able to depict large emotional swings," Ehn says. "He can hold larger plot structures in his head. He's kind of like Gene Kelly. Insofar as I'm any good at all, I'd be Buster Keaton. I know how to stand perfectly still as the building falls around me."
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