“I feel like this play is an incredible amalgamation and a sort of a full circle of Valley talent,” says Julie Waggoner, who is half the cast of a new six-character play. She stars with Jeannine Haas in Red State of Marriage, written specifically for them by local playwright Peter Shelburne, directed by Toby Bercovici and premiering this weekend at Signature Sounds’ Parlor Room in downtown Northampton.
The project grew out of Haas and Waggoner’s previous collaboration, Parallel Lives, another two-actor, multi-character show, which was one of the 2010 season’s biggest hits. The pair, who had performed Shelburne scripts in the 24-Hour Theater Project’s 10-minute play festivals, commissioned him to write something that employs their versatile quick-change talents. He gave them a play “about an ordinary married couple,” as Waggoner puts it—extraordinary only in the fact that they are both women.
Except, part of the point is that it’s no longer so extraordinary, as gay marriage is increasingly seen across the country as not only acceptable but normal. The plotline follows the 20-year relationship of Kim and Katherine “all the way from the ’80s, when gay marriage wasn’t even really thought about, to the point where it’s legal and they get married,” Waggoner explains.
In addition to the two central characters, “We play various friends and family who have reactions [to the relationship] one way or the other, and who have their own lives and their own problems. There’s a cranky homophobic father, a rebellious son who’s an artist, a deadbeat ex-husband, and a handyman who makes at least one pass at one of the main characters.”
The play, Waggoner emphasizes, really is about an ordinary married couple, with many of the same relationship habits and issues as straight couples. (The two performers come to the play from experience, as they are both married to women.) At first they were taken aback by Shelburne’s script, Waggoner says. “Whoa, it’s a play about a married lesbian couple, and he’s a straight guy? And he said, ‘Well, I just figured I was writing about marriage, and I know what marriage is like.’ So there was a level of dialogue between him and us about what places the worlds are the same and what places they’re sort of different.”
The production is the first theater piece to play in the mostly-music Parlor Room, a super-intimate venue with no theatrical trappings. (The show will move on for a third weekend to another cozy space in Greenfield.) Waggoner insists the play “fits perfectly into a small space. There are minimal costumes and minimal set changes, as quick as taking off a pair of glasses and putting on a hat and moving into a new scene to play another character.” And here’s a unique twist on the multi-character convention: each actor plays all four supporting characters at various points in the play.
Waggoner, who’s a fixture on the improv scene, and Haas are both consummate comedians. While the play is also “tender and timely,” says Waggoner, “It’s funny, but like Parallel Lives, it’s not broad caricature, it’s not split your sides open. But it’s funny because Peter can’t help being funny, and neither can we.”•
May 2-5, 8-12, Signature Sounds Parlor Room, 32 Masonic St., Northampton (parlorroommusic.com) and May 16-19, Arts Block, Main St., Greenfield (theartsblock.com).
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.