Playwrights West

Star bright: Claire Willett’s ‘Galileo’

The summer hit at CoHo takes a whack at the Big Questions. Also: "The Theory of Everything," National Theatre Live.

One of the things I like about Claire Willett’s new play Dear Galileo, the Playwrights West show that’s been a breakout summer hit at CoHo Theatre (it closes Saturday night), is the way it unabashedly reclaims the territory of big ideas for the theater.

We’ve not been living with a theater of big ideas these past few years: the standard modus operandi is to burrow deep and small, homing in on ruptures, trying to dig the pinworm out of the cultural corpus; or to create a loose verbal structure for acting as performance art; or just to riff, comically or ironically, on the innate absurdity of the contemporary condition. The days of Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, those brash and impertinent knockings-on-the-door of the infinite, seem far behind us, or tucked away safely on high school stages, although that might be changing: Portland Center Stage, the city’s biggest theater company, kicks off its newest season soon not with its usual big-scale musical but with a revival of Our Town.

Chris Porter and Kate Mura as Galileo and daughter. Photo: Steve Patterson

Porter and Mura as Galileo and daughter. Photo: Steve Patterson

Willett isn’t an ironic writer, and she’s not too interested in the theater of small, at least in subject matter. Dear Galileo embraces the mysteries of the universe, as Galileo himself did, back in the 1600s, when he landed in hot water for pointing out that observable phenomena did not square with certain aspects of received religious belief. That didn’t lead him to question spirituality, only to suggest that certain points of didacticism probably needed to be rethought. It also, inevitably, opened the door to a more expansive and questioning view of cosmic possibility that demanded reexamining even the definition of such concepts as “God.” Where does a desert tribal deity fit in an expanding universe of dwarf stars and antimatter and curved infinities and Big Bangs?

“Mathematics is the language in which God has created the universe,” the production’s program quotes Galileo, and that’s the territory Willett claims as her own: the convergences and clashes of science and religion as each tries to understand the shape and reason (if there is one) of the infinite. Must the two necessarily be at odds? Or can a trick of definition, a recalibration of the idea of religion as a process rather than a tablet of restrictions and rules, bring the two quests for understanding into something closer to harmony? What Willett’s attempting to pull off is a bit like getting C.S. Lewis and Samuel Beckett to pack a few sandwiches and go fishing together, although when you think about it, it’s maybe not such a cockamamie idea: Lewis and Beckett are angling in the same stream, even if their catch seems radically different.

In director Stephanie Mulligan’s well-acted and attractively staged premiere production, the eternal questions are got at via three interlinking stories: those of Galileo himself and his devoted if restive daughter (Chris Porter and Kate Mura, who spar with loving exasperation); of New York artist Cassie Willows (Nena Salazar) and her estranged father, Jasper (Gary Powell, the passionate science prof you wish you’d had in college), a celebrated astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory in the Arizona desert, along with Jasper’s brilliant and emotionally messed up assistant, Gabriel (Nathan Dunkin); and small-town Texas creationist author and TV talking head Robert Snow (Walter Petryk), whose view of religion is as tough and tiny and nigh-unbreakable as a macadamia nut, and his eternally questioning young daughter Haley (Agatha Day Olson), whose eager questions tossed out across the centuries to Galileo give the play its title. Fathers and daughters have as much to do with the play’s emotional and narrative journey as god-the-fathers and the place of mere humans in the universe.

Willett revels in big speeches loaded with big questions, and the Dear Galileo audiences’ eager response to them suggests the skill with which many are constructed, the actors’ deftness of delivery, and perhaps an emerging eagerness by theatergoers to engage with issues bigger than the kitchen sink.

For all its attractions the play is long and sometimes feels as if it’s trying to stuff too much in. I’d need to spend some serious time looking over the script to decide for sure, but it strikes me that two interweaving stories might work better than three, and that the tale of extreme fundamentalist Robert Snow and his daughter might be the odd one out. The stories of the Willows and the Galileis seem to play off each other well: the pioneering astronomer and the contemporary astrophysicist, each trying to balance science and faith, and each thinking in terms far more expansive than the ordinary men and women of their times.

Snow, who clings fervently to the Bishop Ussher timeline of the universe (the good bishop, in his brilliantly wrongheaded journey through the Old Testament’s thicket of begats, determined in 1650 that Creation took place at about 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.), and who twists the scientific record to place humans and dinosaurs on the planet at the same time in an effort to align geological reality with an extreme literalist interpretation of scripture, is hard to take seriously as a thinker. He’s simply not a credible match for Galileo and Willows: intellectually speaking, he’s a relic, although men like him have outsized political, educational, and pop-cultural influence. The Snow segment of Dear Galileo could be a case of the Don Juan in Hell conundrum: a fascinating fragment that’s related but doesn’t quite fit in with the mother ship of Man and Superman. Should it be inserted into the play, or left out, or kept separate and run in repertory?

Let that be. It’s a larger question, ultimately for Willett and no one else to decide. In the meantime, audiences have been enthusiastic, and that’s no accident. Neither, Willett might respond, is the universe, although she’d likely add that that’s part of the big question, isn’t it?

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"The Theory of Everything" director Rusty Newton Tennant with actors Samson Syharath, Kimo Camat, Larry Toda, Wynee Hu, Heath Hyun Houghton,Toni-Tabora-Roberts, Kat Templeton and Elaine Low

“The Theory of Everything” director Rusty Newton Tennant with actors Samson Syharath, Kimo Camat, Larry Toda, Wynee Hu, Heath Hyun Houghton,Toni-Tabora-Roberts, Kat Templeton and Elaine Low

Speaking of big ideas (or at least, big titles), Saturday afternoon is the final chance to catch The Theory of Everything, Prince Golmovilas’ expansive comedy about UFOs, Japan, and the Chapel of Love. Produced by Theatre Diaspora, an arm of Dmae Roberts’ MediaRites that produces theater featuring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it has its final of just two performances at 2 o’clock Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre. Tickets are just 10 bucks; info here.

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And in case you’ve missed Third Rail Rep’s screenings of the National Theatre’s lauded film versions of live performances, or want to catch some of them again, Third Rail is giving an encore festival this weekend of favorites from the 2014-15 season. Showing Friday through Sunday at Imago Theatre, Third Rail’s new home base, will be Man and Superman, Treasure Island, Of Mice and Men, Skylight, A View from the Bridge, and John. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Claire Willett’s moment in the sun

With her new play 'Dear Galileo' and novel 'The Rewind Files,' the Portland writer dares to get uglier, messier – and better

“When I first started writing plays, I felt very insecure about calling myself an artist,” says Claire Willett. After all, she reasoned, who was she to include herself in the same company as the directors, actors and other Portland theater artists she most respected? “I did that to myself for a long time.”

Now, with her own creative endeavors gaining respect and exposure. Willett doesn’t have much choice but to acknowledge herself as an artist.

Willett: writing is the center of her universe.

Willett: writing is the center of her universe.

Saturday night at CoHo Theater, Playwrights West presents the world premiere of Dear Galileo, a smart, moving examination of the fault lines between faith and science, past and present, fathers and daughters. The first of Willett’s plays to get a full production, it’s directed by Stephanie Mulligan and features such Portland stage stalwarts as Gary Powell, Kate Mura and Nathan Dunkin, plus newly transplanted talent Nina Salazar.

And before that show closes at the end of the month, Willett’s debut novel, The Rewind Files, is due out from Retrofit Publishing, a Los Angeles company specializing in serialized science-fiction e-books. As does Dear Galileo, the novel has intergenerational family drama at its heart, but surrounds it with an imaginative swirl of mystery and historical-fiction and time-travel tropes, weaving the Watergate scandal in with the retroactive prevention of World War III.

“I’d spent my whole career not having to finish things,” says Willett, who cut her playwriting teeth mostly through readings and workshop productions in the annual Fertile Ground festival. “Then my final draft of this play and my final draft of the novel were due on the same Friday.”

caf1ca_7874aa6aa06f419aa2ccbf77ad38c4fc.png_srz_p_300_250_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzWillett had been building up to that Friday for a long time. Growing up in Northeast Portland, part of a studious Catholic family, she came by her literary impulses early. “I wanted to be the kind of girl who kept a diary,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t not lie to it – I’d always embellish things.”

Her early writing mentor was Charles Evered, whose playwriting course Willett took during her time at Whitman College. But her post-college internship at Manhattan Theatre Club came in the development department, presaging a career on the administrative side of the arts. Since returning from New York to Portland, she’s worked at Artists Repertory Theatre, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Milepost 5 and Polaris Dance Theatre, eventually specializing in grant-writing.

Whip-smart and voluble, she’s a regular presence at theaters all over town, the sort who stays after shows for talkbacks, offering trenchant questions and comments. “She puts a lot of energy into fellow artists as well as arts supporters,” says Mead Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Portland and the unofficial dean of the city’s playwriting community.

Galileo Galilei (Chris Porter) and Celeste Galilei (Kate Mura) test Galileo’s theories. Photo: Steve Patterson

Galileo Galilei (Chris Porter) and Celeste Galilei (Kate
Mura) test Galileo’s theories. Photo: Steve Patterson

When her former Artists Rep colleague Trisha Mead founded the Fertile Ground festival as an open opportunity to showcase new work, Willett took the chance to start developing an artistic voice of her own, writing a new play for each year’s festival until 2015 — when her writing time was devoted instead to her novel.

Hunter was the first to lend his support to Dear Galileo, encouraging Willett to submit it to Artists Rep. There, Mulligan quickly took an interest and directed a staged reading for the 2012 Fertile Ground. The next year, the play was workshopped in the Hothouse New Play Development Series at California’s historic Pasadena Playhouse.

“Mead and Stephanie have been the people who have shaped my writing the most: pushing me when I needed pushing, and believing in me from the beginning,” Willett says.

“Claire’s always been a fascinating thinker and writer,” Hunter says. “In Dear Galileo, as in most of Claire’s plays, she plumbs the depths and tests the limits of what it means to be a sentient being on this wild planet. Her characters make connections across time and space in way that makes us ask ourselves, from our seats in the audience, where we place ourselves on the cosmic scale.”

After gaining membership in Playwrights West (“One night at an after-show party I lurched up to Matt Zrebski and Patrick Wohlmut and said, ‘What do I have to do to be in your cool-kid’s club?’”) and getting on the CoHo schedule, Willett decided to resolve the lingering issues in Dear Galileo.

Haley Snow (Agatha Olson), a girl with big questions in "Dear Galileo." Photo: Steve Patterson

Haley Snow (Agatha Olson), a girl with big questions in
“Dear Galileo.” Photo: Steve Patterson

The play follows three pairs of fathers and daughters – two contemporary and one historical – whose relationships revolve around matters of faith and science. But another relationship, a nascent romance between one of the daughters and her father’s troubled former assistant, wasn’t quite working.

“It was placeholder text in some way,” she says. “Rewriting to figure out where they end up instead was the first big change. I finally was willing to let it be uglier and messier – which is important. It’s really hard to write good drama if you’re pathologically avoiding confrontation.”

You’d hardly call it pathological, but Dear Galileo and The Rewind Files share a persistent psychological concern: How to come to terms with lives in the shadows of illustrious parents. The novel’s protagonist is Regina “Reggie” Bellows, a young 23rd-century woman working for the U.S. government agency in charge of time travel, whose parents both are legendary figures in the same field. One parent is dead and a mystery; the other is very much alive and intimidating.

Willett’s mother, Theresa Willett, who died in 2008 of ALS, was “always the much bigger personality,” a prominent activist and volunteer, serving on the boards of such organizations as Catholic Charities, Mt. Angel Abby, and Central Catholic High School. She says she didn’t really get to know her quiet father, Ken Willett, part of the team that launched the renowned tech company Mentor Graphics, until her mother’s death. And it wasn’t until after she’d finished writing the novel that Willett realized her sci-fi adventure yarn really was about her relationship with her parents.

It was supposed to be a book about Watergate, albeit with a sci-fi twist.

“Initially it was just going to be a girl and her mom and some wacky Watergate antics,” Willett says. “It evolved into this completely different thing.”

The end result is a sci-fi thriller in which Reggie and a few trusted accomplices jump back and forth through time to unravel the mystery behind the death of her father and to thwart a conspiracy that has altered the true course of history by causing a catastrophic war between the U.S. and China. The plotting is cleverly complex, almost Escher-like. The pacing is brisk, even across 462 pages. Best of all, the characters, especially the insecure but sharp-tongued Reggie, are witty and relatable.

“ I was trying to write the kind of book I like to read: I really like science fiction and adventure stories,” Willett says. “It’s very different from the plays I’ve written. I feel very protective about Dear Galileo, but with this I felt much freer, like, ‘I can just see where this goes and I don’t have to impress anyone.’

“Even if nobody buys this book except my dad, now I know that this is the kind of writing I want to do.”

Astrophyicist Jasper Willows (Gary Powell) discusses the mysteries of the heavens. Photo: Steve Patterson

Astrophyicist Jasper Willows (Gary Powell) discusses the
mysteries of the heavens. Photo: Steve Patterson

Willett says that if the book does well, Retrofit might be interested in bringing Reggie back for a sequel. Also, she’s unlikely to stop writing plays just when she gets one produced. And as for a bill-paying job, she still calls herself a freelance grants writer, keeping a foot in the business side of the arts world.

But now that she no longer has any compunction about calling herself an artist, her future is more open.

“Right now I don’t have a career plan anymore. Which is all right, because all I ever wanted was to be a writer.”

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Dear Galileo continues through August 29 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.

 

Masque of the Red Death review: Partying with Poe

Shaking the Tree Theatre's collaboration with Playwrights West puts a modern twist on classic horror.

Masque of the Red Death begins even before you enter the building, when masked actors greet you, intentionally a little too enthusiastically, at the door, welcoming you to the festivities. The greetings continue as you ascend the stairs to the box office, where you’re handed a fetching, delicately detailed black or white mask of your own and ushered into a large space occupied by a few dozen other masked patrons, mingling with similarly masked actors (so that it’s hard to tell who’s in the show and who’s paying to see it) encouraging us to dance and loosen up, have a good time. It’s like walking into a crowded party filled with vaguely creepy strangers — an ideal Halloween production.

Kerrigan and Thompson in "Masque of the Red Death." Photo: Gary Norman.

Kerrigan and Thompson in “Masque of the Red Death.” Photo: Gary Norman.

That’s the frame director Samantha Van Der Merwe has constructed for Shaking the Tree Theatre’s ingenious collection of eleven episodes written by local Playwrights West authors, all based on stories by the great American writer Edgar Allen Poe. Reminiscent of horror anthology films or TV shows like Rod Serling’s old Night Gallery series, Masque drops us into Poe’s classic 1842 title story, involving a party, a plague, and a prince indifferent to the suffering of the 99%. (The writers shunned overt contemporary references to Ebola and today’s accelerating inequality, but they resonate anyway.) Van Der Merwe cleverly repurposes the original story’s setting — the party happens in several rooms of different colors — to provide the respective venues for each playlet.

After the audience members all arrive, the party’s host, Prince Prospero (wittily played by Matthew Kerrigan), takes charge, explaining that we’re all here to be entertained as a relief from the plague raging outside, and we move to our seats. As at any party, some of the encounters turn out more interesting than others. Claire Willett’s static “The Demons Down Under the Sea,” inspired by Poe’s Annabel Lee, dissipates the opening slot’s anticipatory tension; despite the actors’ best efforts, the poem resists drama. But the next scene, Andrew Wardenaar’s version of “The Pit and the Pendulum” ratchets it up again via the most minimal means of all — darkness — using only intermittent low strobe lighting (on Joseph Gibson, who carries the solo role mostly unseen) and a fiendishly clever low-budget method of evoking the scurrying of rats all around the audience. Moving the audience literally into the midst of its laudanum-fueled action raises the claustrophobic tension of Steve Patterson’s ending glimpse of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Such smart directorial touches abound in a production that, though devoid of extensive props and special effects, nevertheless mostly succeeds in immersing us in Poe’s eerie world.

Van Der Merwe’s originality even extends to that usual dead zone, the intermission. Instead of shuffling around the lobby, idly chattering with strangers and sipping coffee, the audience is directed to the wine bar across the street, which admittedly breaks the spell but at least maintains the dark party vibe. Then, light-saber wielding ushers guide them back to Poe’s world for Act 2, which opens with the next installment of Patrick Wohlmut’s framing “Masque.”

Joseph Gibson in "Pit and the Pendulum." Photo: Gary Norman.

Joseph Gibson in “Pit and the Pendulum.” Photo: Gary Norman.

In fact, concept and direction actually prove stronger than Poe’s source material, which seems longer on evocative language and atmosphere than on actual drama. Even the otherwise entertaining adaptations of relatively stronger stories, like Aleks Merilo’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (in which you can’t tell the doctor from the crazy patients, the inspiration for plenty of 20th century writers) and Matthew Zrebski’s “Tip of the Finger” (from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” though not the whole story) drag. And despite Amanda Cole and Nicole Accuardi ‘s delightful comic turn with Gibson, “The Spectacles” shows why Poe is most remembered for horror rather than humor.

The show excels when it sprinkles 21st century irony and references (Madonna, Led Zeppelin, etc.) over Poe’s overheated 19th century romanticism — most prominently in Kerrigan’s commanding performance as Prospero and as the author himself in Ellen Margolis’ “That Smell,” inspired by Poe’s too-short life. Kerrigan strikes just the right balance between it’s-all-a-joke playful, seductive, and sadistic. His spontaneous banter with the audience flickers in and out of Poe’s world and into our own, keeping his scenes feeling fresh and modern instead of musty macabre antique.

Along with Kerrigan’s triumphant performance, Beth Thompson’s riveting embodiment of death personified is even more impressive considering that she spends the show behind her Death mask. Though the acting is inconsistent, other players — especially Katie Watkins, Joshua J. Weinstein and Andy Lee Hillstrom, who in Debbie Lamedman’s “Pluto” somehow makes you think a mousy milquetoast could be capable of uxoricide and, er, kittycide — turn in some good work in one or more roles.

Granted, the play’s oscillation between past and present sensibilities, between wry, even tongue-in-cheek camp, and horror, sometimes muddles the emotional impact of a given scene. Moreover, sometimes the narratives didn’t quite add up, maybe because omitting exposition kept the pace pounding, and the playwrights assumed that we’d fill in missing details from our memories of the stories. In any case, the more you know (or remember) of the originals, the more you’re likely to enjoy the show. Even the slightly clunky ending of the framing “Masque,” which also wraps up the production, succeeds more in tying up loose ends than providing a taut climax. But it’s Kerrigan’s sly acting and Van Der Merwe’s creative concept that really make this Poe party one of the season’s most memorable productions.

Just as the show begins before you enter the door, it also ends with a shudder after you walk outside, as a spooky figure keeps a promise made at the end, transfixing exiting patrons with a cold, implacable stare as they leave the theater, but not the memory of Poe’s eldritch world, behind.

The sold-out run of Shaking the Tree Theatre’s Masque of the Red Death, which ends November 22, makes a fitting death rattle for the company’s old space as it moves into new digs with its next production. But let’s hope this collaboration between some Oregon’s best playwrights and one of its most inventive theaters lingers even longer. Whether they bring back Poe again, or Lovecraft or Stephen King or even originals by Oregon authors, maybe this party play could become an annual Halloween tradition.

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The big weekend, Portland Opera’s 50th year, much more

We link to the weekend's shows, pounce on the opera's 5-production season, and gather various and sundry

"The Rake's Progress" will be part of Portland Opera's 50th season./© Alastair Muir

“The Rake’s Progress” will be part of Portland Opera’s 50th season./© Alastair
Muir

Of course it was a busy weekend on the theater front, the first of many as companies reload their theater chambers for the Second Season, and yes, I’m already sorry for that gun metaphor. How is a play like a bullet?

What does the New Reviewing look like? It seeks to understand and integrate, not sit in judgment, for one. And so you get Bob Hicks writing about two important plays that opened this weekend, Chinglish at Portland Center Stage and Eyes for Consuela at Profile Theatre, in a way that links the two with each other and with a prominent cultural “character,” the Ugly American.

Meanwhile, AL Adams and Mr. Hicks combined to project the upcoming Fertile Ground new work festival through their “speed-dating” preview event. Dinner and a performance, anyone. And Adams reviewed CoHo’s Enjoy, a translation of a play about Japanese hipster/slackers.

Why do we need New Reviewing? Well, I attempted to talk about that a little bit in a previous post that’s gotten a lot of attention, “A vote for re-inventing arts journalism”: I link to it just so you can give it a read if you want to get caught up.

We’ll close this links section of our report with an avenue to Tom Hallman Jr.’s profile of actor Wendy Westerwelle and her new Triangle Productions one-woman show, Medicare-fully Fabulous. Maybe you had to see Westerwelle back in the day at Storefront Theatre to begin to come to terms with how deliciously subversive she can be, but Hallman’s account of her recent medical struggles is really well done.

OK, now on to more news and notes!

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Historically speaking (and we so love to speak historically!), the Portland Opera is the first major arts group to announce its next season to the public. We so love it when history holds true to form!

The opera’s 2014-15 season will be its 50th anniversary season, so General Director Christopher Mattaliano has gone with gusto and five productions. “Our 2014/15 Season represents all that is best in opera and musical theater: compelling stories of comedy, drama, and romance told through great music; outstanding performers led by internationally renowned conductors and directors; splendid scenery and captivating costumes in five productions that are new to Portland.”

  • Die Fledermaus, Keller Auditorium, November 7, 9, 13 & 15, 2014: The Portland Opera started its life with Johan Strauss II’s romantic comedy on December 11, 1964, in the Madison High School auditorium.
  • Carmen, Keller Auditorium, February 6, 8, 10, 12 & 14, 2015: Sandra Piques Eddy plays the tempestuous title role in Georges Bizet’s great, ground-breaking opera.
  • Show Boat, Keller Auditorium, May 1, 3, 5, 7 & 9, 2015: The Portland Opera will stage Hal Prince’s justly famous 1994 staging of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein III musical.
  • The Rake’s Progress, Keller Auditorium, June 11, 12 & 14, 2015: Igor Stravinsky, inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni, built his only opera on the narrative skeleton of Hogarth’s eight-painting series of the same name. This one has sets by artist David Hockney.
  • The Elixer of Love, Newmark Theatre, July 17, 19, 23, 25 & 30, August 1, 2015: The season concludes with the opera’s chamber presentation featuring its resident artists in the 880-seat Newmark, Gaetano Donizetti’s romance, which here will moved to the American West.

Tickets are now available through the Portland Opera website.

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Portland Playhouse’s Jitney will populate August Wilson’s play with a crackerjack cast, led by Oregon Shakespeare Festival star Kevin Kennerly and Portland Center Stage favorite Rodney Hicks. Here director G. Valmont Thomas discusses the production.

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Playwrights West, the illustrious gathering of mostly Portland playwrights, has joined forces with Artists Repertory Theatre for a series of new play readings this winter and spring, Flash Reads. The first two on the schedule are part of Fertile Ground.

Calumnies, by Ellen Margolis, 7:30 pm January 27: Based on a true story (and set in my neck of the woods, Frankfort, Kentucky, in the 1820s), Calumnies follows backwoods beauty Olivia Burke’s ill-starred romance with a local politician and a would-be knight in shining armor.

Carter Hall, by Claire Willett, 7:30 pm January 28: Willett’s fairytale of a play unspools to the music of Steeleye Span as the heroes track down a missing child in the fairy underworld.

In other Playwrights West news, the group (Debbie Lamedman, Karin Magaldi, Ellen Margolis, Aleks Merilo, Steve Patterson, Andrea Stolowitz, Andrew Wardenaar, Claire Willett, Patrick Wohlmut, and Matthew B. Zrebski) has announced a new member, Aleks Merilo, whose Exit 27 (at the Landing Theatre) was named 2013’s Best New Play for Houston by Broadway World.

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