Infinite Black Suitcase, the new play by the USC School of Dramatic Arts, aims to show audiences a different portrait of death this Halloween. The production premieres on Halloween at McClintock Theatre and stars many promising USC thespians who test out their comedy chops in a production by acclaimed playwright EM Lewis.
Director Robert Bailey told the Daily Trojan that he was introduced to the play by artistic director Jack Rowe, who thought that it would be right up his alley.
“I love to work on plays that are contemporary that deal with contemporary dramatic issues,” Bailey said. “Plays that have naturalistic dialogue and believable human situations.”
The story goes through the experiences of 16 Oregonians living in the same town who all must face death in their own way. The play is structured into 14 vignettes that cut between three story lines and a handful of peripherally related scenes: a widow who has to deal with the suicide of her husband, a gay couple who has to cope with a disease that causes slow deterioration, and the impending death of a mother that threatens to tear apart an unconventional family. Eventually, all of the stories link together and provide an unconventional structure.
“What’s really special about this play is that there’s no protagonist,” actress and theatre major Emma Ward said.
Ward, a senior who has been acting since she was 10, plays Anne, whose husband is to be buried with his ex-wife instead of her. Ward said her favorite part about the play is the humor, and playing a character that does find the humor in the situation.
“She likes to make situations that are very serious as funny as possible,” Ward said.
Theatre and narrative studies major Jaemyeong Lee plays Tony Liu, who has to struggle with his ailing wife Katie. Each actor prepares for a role in a different way, but Lee emphasizes precision in following the script.
“I don’t know if that’s obvious, but reading the play multiple times, you read it once for an overview of how everything fits together. You read it again just to make sure you didn’t miss anything,” Lee said. “You read it again, to try and pick up on different motifs that are showing up and how that targets the overall message of the play. Then you read it again from the perspective of the character.”
Alex Diehl, a senior majoring in theatre, had to make some physical changes in an attempt to identify with the character.
“I’ve been doing some voice work to lower my voice a little bit and movement work. We also went and visited a graveyard because there’s a scene that takes place in a graveyard,” Diehl said. “It’s actually a very funny play, it’s not a sad play … So a lot of my work has been catching on to the wit of the writing and finding that humor.”
Behind the scenes, humor was prevalent throughout the month-and-a-half rehearsal period. During rehearsal, one actor had to be absent for a couple of weeks, so several people would come and read lines from script, Diehl recalled.
There were other challenges to be overcome by the crew. One included the set, which is described in the script as simple, but with the same spaces representing different locations during different story lines.
“Although the play is written naturalistically, there’s so many scenes, so many different locations. … What we’ve done is we’ve come up with a set that is not exactly naturalistic,” Bailey said. “It’s more suggestive or impressionistic. You might have a scene taking place in the living room of one of the families early on and then that becomes the same scene where a widow, who’s thinking of going to date again. … All we do is make some minor adjustments.”
Bailey and the actors all agreed that the point of the production was to open the eyes of audiences to mortality, but also to teach that humor can still be a part of death.
“It’s something everyone will have to face at some point in their lives. And for a long time … death is something that you think just applies to someone else, until it actually does happen to you,” Lee said. ”And someone that you know is nearing the end of their life. … It gives people ways to cope with that and therefore it also asks us to examine who we are as people.”
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