by EVAN HENERSON
“Find what you still don’t know.”
The words, spoken by Amanda McRaven, are more suggestion than directive — the precursor to a set of warm-up exercises designed to transport the members of Fugitive Kind Theater fully into the realm of the physical. On a drizzly Friday afternoon at LA STAGE Alliance’s rehearsal space in Atwater Village, the company is gearing up the first rough run-through of its newest play, Shine Darkly, Illyria. But before they head off into the realm of re-considered Shakespeare, there’s a different kind of work to be done.
During the warm-up, these actors are literally inseparable, stretching and clinching, twisting around each other, hoisting and counter-balancing each other’s weight. They vault into each other’s arms and drum on each other’s bodies. Even were Shine Darkly, Illyria not a highly physical show, this kind of exercise would not necessarily be out of place. When you play with Fugitive Kind, you play hard and get close.
“You could call it a mindfulness practice. It gets you out of your head,” says Mercedes Manning, a founding company member. “We don’t like to just jump into anything with each other cold. So we’re physically sharing weight, incorporating gestures, tempo and speed, all things that get you physically moving. [We’re] kinesthetically responding to something somebody does or to the sounds they make. It takes you out of your head into the actual physical.”
The company was developed by a group of friends and artists who were classmates in graduate school at UC Irvine in the mid-2000s. After graduation, McRaven studied in New Zealand under a Fulbright Scholarship while her classmates began their acting and theater careers in Los Angeles. In 2010, when she returned to Los Angeles, McRaven found many of her friends anxious for opportunities to work together again.
“They were missing something, a sense of community and being able to make something together,” McRaven says. “Everybody felt very isolated in L.A. and they wanted to find a way to get back to communal event, a spiritual event — not in terms of religion, but in terms of a cathartic human experience.”
The company (which drew its name from a line in Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in which Carol Cuterre remarks that “the fugitive kind will always follow their kind”) was formed in 2011. During its brief history, the company has typically staged one production per year, including Midsummer & Macbeth, a pair of Shakespeare plays cut to fit into a single evening; a radio play which became a stage play at the Hollywood Fringe Festival (The Fire Room); and a workshop of Charles Mee’s Heaven on Earth. Shine Darkly, Illyria — written by playwright-in-residence Meghan Brown — is the company’s first production since its 2014 staging of Brown’s The Pliant Girls, which earned both Brown and director McRaven Ovation Awards.
Illyria originated after McRaven, Brown, and the ensemble spent the summer of 2015 delving into Twelfth Night, exploding it, and deciding to create a sequel of sorts. The process has been “a little more workshoppy” than previous productions, but the format seems to be suiting the company quite nicely.
“We believe the work should always be gratifying and not stressful,” says McRaven. “We design our year to spend lot of time going deep on one script. We believe in sustainability. We want to go deep with a piece and really get to know it.”
With the warm-up at an end, the Kindfolks move into their run-through. More clustering. More intimacy. The prologue includes a party with crescendo-ing cries of “MOON-dance! MOON-dance! MOON-dance!” Many of Shakespeare’s principal characters reappear. New to the Illyrian landscape is the character of the Moon, embodied by a young woman who revolves around a pole, makes oracle-like prophecies, and dispenses the highly addictive moon dust.
Changes have come to Illyria where Orsino, Olivia, Viola and the gang play out their antics of mistaken identity, trickery, and love. Shakespeare’s three sets of couples have paired off, but all is far from bliss. Neither Viola nor Olivia can shake the bond they created when Viola — dressed as the boy Cesario — was wooing her. Viola’s twin brother Sebastian, who married Olivia, is now seeing his wife get more and more distant the more strung out on moon dust she becomes. Sir Toby Belch and Maria have trust issues of their own.
Oh, and one other matter… thanks to years of neglect and revelry, the Illyrians must now face the fact that their perceived island paradise is not just decaying, but actually sinking. And this impending catastrophe, prophesied by the Moon, is their fault. This may be perhaps a less sunny take on these characters than the Bard of Avon imagined, but the tale developed organically in a distinctly Fugitive Kind-ly way.
According to Brown, the investigative workshop of Twelfth Night was leading her toward a creative brick wall. The playwright felt she had nothing original to offer to yet another adaptation of the play.
“So I kind of worked a little backwards, where it was like, ‘Okay, what are some things about this play that I do find really relevant to right now?’” Brown recalls. “I really got into the idea [that] it’s raining on this sort of dark island where everyone’s solution is just to party more, and this idea too of the end of Twelfth Night where everyone is married to each other. What’s happening five months or five years after that, where it’s these people who are kind of thrown together conveniently? What is that?”
Sage Howard Simpson, who plays Viola, was pleased that Shine Darkly developed with environmental issues. Following The Pliant Girls, which explored issues of gender dynamics, Simpson contends that it is important that dramas continue to ask socially relevant questions.
“It didn’t set out to be this way, but the play really speaks to how we’re treating our planet as a society,” Simpson said. “Olivia realizes that there are all these problems and that this island is really sinking and we are responsible for it. She says, ‘Well then why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?’ I think that is a question we need to ask ourselves… our responsibility for the way we are treating our home.”
Brown tailored the play to the creative talents of the FK company members, making Shine Darkly, Illyria every bit a company project. The presence of performer Alana Marie Cheuvront, a skilled pole dancer, led to the creation of the Moon. One day when Cheuvront was absent from rehearsal, another person stood in for the Moon. That development worked its way into the plot as well.
Following the run of Shine Darkly, Illyria company members expect to scatter for the summer and reconnect in the fall, possibly to restage the production. Fundraising, touring, festival visits are also on the agenda, and a new play will likely be ready to hit the boards in the spring of 2017.
“We are always working on infrastructure, and we’ll be looking for a physical home at some point,” McRaven says. “Right now, we’re interested in touring, getting what we do out into the world.”
SHINE DARKLY, ILLYRIA by Fugitive Kind Theater, May 6–29 at McCadden Place Theatre.
A modern fable inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.