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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A moment of Balm

Published: February 2, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

Jordan Butterfield 07, who is the dramaturg for the Brandeis Theatre Companys upcoming production of Lanford Wilsons Balm in Gilead, was kind enough to talk to The Hoot about the upcoming production.

Hoot: Could you tell us a little about the play?

Jordan Butterfield: Balm in Gilead is a lyric realist piece, which basically means that it has realist elements with a bit of magic thrown in there. It was written in 1964, so there is an element of disaster, if you will;

the Kennedy assassination was recent, poverty is rampant, and the U.S. is basically on the verge of revolution. The characters represent many different elements of the fringe of society. There are transsexuals, homosexuals, drug addicts, and alcoholics, and they all kind of belong to this caf, this all-night diner in New York City. Lanford Wilson is a very unique writer in that he writes monologues and extracts dialogue from everyday life and then writes a play based on that. There may be no discernable plot, but it is fascinating because of the characters and the struggles in their everyday lives. Wilson actually went to an all-night diner in New York City in 1964. He would listen to these drug addicts and these dealers and these transsexuals, and he would record their conversations and make them into a play. So thats why some of the speeches, monologues, and dialogue just flow as if you would hear it coming from the mouth of someone on the street. Its a very interesting piece because the dialogue is very realistic, but sometimes the characters talk right out to the audience and break the fourth wall. Dopey, an aptly-named dope addict, is the most notorious character for that. He is important to the play because his monologues lend themselves to the audiences understanding as outsiders. Also important is Darlene, who is arguably the lead character, because she isnt actually based on anyone in New York City, shes actually based on Lanford Wilsons own experiences as an outsider. His experiences as an outsider in this new world in the underbelly of New York City are evident in Darlenes monologues and her dialogue and her kind of naivety about life.

Hoot: As dramaturg, what exactly is your role in mounting this production?

JB: The dramaturg is kind of a new position in the American theatre. Its well-established in the European theatres, specifically Russia and Germany, but in America its not so well-known. The dramaturg functions as an advisor to the director. If the play is a historical piece, as Balm sort of is, the dramaturg functions as kind of a historical advisor. If an actor or the director doesnt understand a certain piece of dialogue, then the dramaturg would clarify it for them. So, my function is basically historical background, currency exchanges and things like that, as well as, since Wilsons writing is so thick, theres a lot of colloquialisms that people wont understand today or most of us wont understand because most of us are not drug addicts or transsexuals in New York City. Basically, Im an expert in double entendres and things like that.

Hoot: You have been involved with this production for a while, but director Liz Terry THA only joined shortly before auditions. Can you speak about how she has handled taking on the role of director on such short notice?

JB: So, the Brandeis Theatre Company season was decided last spring. I have been on since then, and I had been working with the original director, Adrianne Krstansky [THA], who is now actually starring in Britannicus at the American Repertory Theatre. Liz graciously came into the production not knowing the show at all. I think she may have read and re-read the show five times in one day, just trying to get a feel for it before casting. She has been very attentive to Wilsons vision of the show, but she has also taken it and made it her own;

its been very interesting to see her process. Because these people are at the bottom of society and their base instincts are to survive, when Liz warms up the actors, each one has a different animal, and she has them work with that. The trust that these actors need working together as an ensemble, with this being an ensemble piece, is also very important. Even though some of them squabble in the show, in the end the ensemble is a family, and Liz has captured that very vividly, and youll see that through the production.

Hoot: When I read the script for Balm in Gilead, I was struck by how chaotic it is, with overlapping text and such. Could you speak a little about that?

JB: You actually read the script? Really? Well, Im impressed, because that is more than most can say. You can ask any of the cast, reading the script is a painful, painful experience for that exact reason. The unique aspect of Balm in Gilead is its not a traditional theatre piece in that one person speaks and another will respond;

its an ensemble piece with a lot of sounds on top of each other. All of the monologues and dialogue are very interesting to listen to, but its very difficult to extract all of them and listen to them. Its kind of something that needs to be absorbed, as if you were in a room full of people listening to all the conversations at once. Wilson has monologues going on over important dialogue and then hell have three different conversations going at once. People shouldnt be trying to pay meticulous attention to one piece of dialogue. Thats not the way its intended to be read or listened to. Wilsons ensemble pieces are very much like this. He was very conscious of the whole, the sound of the piece, he was very into music, and youll see that used, incorporated very nicely into the production.

Hoot: Could you talk a little bit about how the production is being approached in terms of design?

JB: We have some great, great people. We ran with a kind of Vietnam-era feel for the show. Although it was written in 1964, which is a very different feel than later in the 70s, weve kind of incorporated that whole era, of the disenchantment of the Vietnam War well into the 70s. Music, sound design is absolutely fantastic, incorporated very well;

we have live music as well as a working jukebox onstage, which will have some familiar tunes for all ages. Our set design is very specific to the period. You will feel like youre walking into a diner, its a wonderful piece, down to the last detail. Its a slum diner, so its not going to be something you would necessarily want to eat in, but it is very much a home to the cast. As for the costumes, as I said, we have kind of a 70s feel. All of that lends itself very well to this time period and more on the realist side than Lanford Wilson was in his original production.

Hoot: What do we need to know to actually see the showticket prices? Dates? Location?

JB: Balm in Gilead will run in Spingolds Laurie Theater. It starts Feb. 9 and runs through Feb. 19. The first weekend we have a preview Thursday and shows Friday and Saturday, while we have Thursday Friday, two Saturday and Sunday shows during the second. You can get tickets by phone or in person from the Spingold Box Office and, being Brandeis students, you can get them for $10.