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StageStruck: The Tailor and the Chimps

Two plays view historical events through unique prisms.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012
Courtesy of Dogstar Theatre Company
Matthew Zajak in The Tailor of Inverness

One man traced an epic wandering journey from eastern Europe to northern Britain. Another occupied a quiet corner of this country till events catapulted him into the headlines. Next week, campus theater departments bring both men's adventures to Valley audiences, one on stage, the other over the airwaves.

In The Tailor of Inverness, actor/playwright Matthew Zajak chronicles an eventful odyssey driven by world-shaking events. His father, a Polish-born tailor, was caught up in the upheavals of World War II and propelled through a whirlwind of nations—Iran, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Scotland—and identities: prisoner of war, refugee, British soldier, immigrant. A stranger in many strange lands, he improvised the successive identities that helped him survive and finally come to rest.

Zajak's one-man show employs what he calls "a form of theatrical storytelling" incorporating songs, poetry, "visual aspects that give the story contextual and emotional dimensions" and live original music by master Scottish fiddler Gavin Marwick. The play reflects on "how war affects ordinary people and families," on the knots that can tangle a lifetime's intended thread, and on the identities we carry with us even while forging new ones.

The show was seen at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival by students and teachers in a UMass summer arts travel program. Next week's performances and workshops with the artists comprise the program's third annual "After-Festival," bringing to campus one of the shows that, according to performance studies professor Jenny Spencer, "offered a transformative experience in the theater."

The Tailor of Inverness performs in the Curtain Theater at UMass Jan. 31-Feb 3. Tickets at (413) 545-2511, (800) 999-UMAS and fineartscenter.com; info at umass.edu/theater.

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The infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925 is remembered as the principled stand of a courageous teacher in defense of science and free speech, and as a clash of courtroom titans. History, however, explodes both of those popular images. In Chimps, written as an old-time radio play, Amherst College student Greg Barrett describes the opportunistic maneuverings that led to "the trial of the century" which (unsuccessfully) challenged the constitutionality of a Tennessee law that outlawed the teaching of evolution.

Turns out the case was sparked not by a bold individual but by a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tenn., who were looking for a way to put their little town on the map and learned that the American Civil Liberties Union wanted to bring a test case against the statute. They recruited high school science teacher John Scopes to claim (falsely, as it later emerged) that he had taught his class the heretical doctrine that "men were descended from monkeys."

The trial is also remembered as an epochal courtroom battle between the civil liberties champion Clarence Darrow and the silver-tongued orator and Bible-thumping politician William Jennings Bryan. Their encounter is famously represented in the drama Inherit the Wind, which director Peter Lobdell describes as "high romance—a worthy play, but lousy history." In fact, Darrow and Bryan were only the highest-profile members of the legal teams each side amassed for the trial.

Chimps—a timely reminder that even today, a majority of Americans don't believe in Darwinian evolution—will be recorded for broadcast before a live audience on Sunday, Jan. 29, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Amherst College's Converse Hall. Admission is free.

Chris Rohmann can be reached at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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