By John Quinn
The backstage story was a recurring plot device of Hollywood films, but it’s less common in theater itself. That alone would make “A Play by Franco Vitella” unusual, but this wicked little variation on the theme, spawned from the fertile imagination of local playwright Franco Vitella, is totally unique. The Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company is launching this new show at The Abreact Performance Space. The Critic is seldom at a loss for words; this concept leaves him speechless.
A necessary quality for the theater professional is a broad streak of masochism, and it’s therapeutic at times to simply let the id out to play. The result is very personal – something of an Aristotelian catharsis for the artist – so to describe what “A Play by Franco Vitella” is about, let’s turn to Franco Vitella. “The play was born in my own struggles with writer’s block and the countless unfinished drafts I’ve started, only to abandon after a few pages. And then I thought about how when it comes down to it, an audience gathering to see a play is sort of a strange thing. Even more strange is the fact that actors shed themselves to become other people for a few hours, and as a playwright, I have control over what they say and do. So I wanted to take the theatricality of it all, director and actors, the audience, myself, and throw them into this experiment to see what happened.”
That’s the “why” of the creative process; the “how” is so wonderfully convoluted it defies description.
But The Critic must try.
Actors Joel Mitchell, Holly Portman and Adam Schrader have been cast in Franco Vitella’s new play. Though the show is already in production – hey, there’s an audience out front! – they’re working from an incomplete script, which frustrates director Jonathan Davidson, played by Keith Kalinowski. The cast has been enticed into this production by the promise that they will not be buried by character; they will have a chance to be themselves. The promise is a sham; the cast finds they are hostage to Vitella’s increasingly futile attempts at completing a cogent story. This is a surreal experience for artist and audience alike.
Although “A Play by Franco Vitella” is insanely funny, the playwright doesn’t omit the dark side of the equation. “With great power comes great responsibility,” but the ability to play puppet master is a heady intoxicant. Artun Kircali is the onstage avatar of the playwright, and admirably handles the complex emotions tossed at his character. Who knows those emotions better that Franco Vitella?
And who knows director Jonathan Davidson better than Jonathan Davidson? He’s given Keith Kalinowski ample room to poke fun at directors in general and himself in particular. As for Mitchell, Portman and Schrader, they’ve been cast because they’re performers who can let their hair down and still entertain. And one must not forget Alexis Mabry, pinch hitting on stage for long-suffering stage manager Julanne Jacobs.
With all its complexities and layers, “A Play by Franco Vitella” is an existential experience for all involved.
‘A Play by Franco Vitella’
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 22, plus 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16. 1 hour, 40 minutes. $15-18. 313-408-7269. http://www.Magentagiraffe.org