Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1997
“At 22, I was managing my father’s business, I had a wife of three years, a three-bedroom house, a new Camaro and a cat, and I freaked out.”
Bryan Bevell, co-artistic director of the Fritz Theatre, is the unlikely source of the preceding quote, he of the off-beat, fringe-theater mentality. That ‘freak-out’ served San Diego well. Bevell left San Diego, and went back to college in New Mexico, where he’d lived as a child. When he returned, he injected new life into the local theater scene.
He didn’t see his first play till he was 23. Then his younger brother dragged him to an audition for O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”; Bryan played Jamie and his brother played brother Edmond. “That was my first role. Kind of baptism by fire. My first directing experience was [King] “Lear” (1993, at the Fritz). I guess I just go right to the top.”
Bevell became a theater major at the University of New Mexico, where he met playwright Karin Williams. They married and moved to San Diego in 1990 (they were divorced a year ago, but still work together at the Fritz).
Then he read “Fat Men in Skirts”, by New York playwright Nicky Silver.
“The play of my dreams materialized before me,” Bevell, 36, says with incredulity. “I never read a play that impacted me so squarely. Something in the humor and the wrenching emotional stuff really grabbed me. I was afraid to direct it, but I did [Fritz Theatre, February 1995, remounted at Sledgehammer Theatre], and it lived up to all my expectations.”
“What I love about Silver’s characters is that they try real hard to avoid it, but ultimately, they accept responsibility for who and what they are. People sometimes think the characters are appalling. You have to tap into their humanness. If you play the comedy, they come off as awful, brittle, hard, terrible people.”
“Fat Men” was a Southern California premiere, and it marked a real beginning for Bevell. He was a perfect match for Silver’s work, a mesh of weirdness and hilarity. Bevell went on to direct acclaimed productions of “Raised in Captivity” and “Free Will and Wanton Lust” (a record-breaker at Sledgehammer Theatre).
This month, he introduces San Diego audiences to playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“The America Play”, March 13-April 6 at the Fritz).
“I heard a feature about her on NPR,” he explains. “Then I read “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World”. I thought it was boffo, brilliant, indecipherable. I tried to get [rights to] “The America Play” for two years. We thought it should have a black director; we just couldn’t make that happen…. I said we had to do this play, even if I have to direct it myself.”
And so he will, using an African-American cast to convey the story of a black man who leaves his wife and son, and goes off to impersonate Abraham Lincoln, allowing paying curiosity-seekers to assassinate him over and over again.
David Richards, of The New York Times, hailed it as “a surrealistic sideshow, troubled dream, poetic riff on black identity…” In 1989, The Times named Parks “the year’s most promising new playwright.”
But not everyone loves her work. New York magazine’s John Simon called “The America Play” “a farrago of undigested Beckett and distantly ogled Joyce.” Nonetheless, the playwright is adapting “America” for the screen.
Parks is a bit dense and dizzying for some. Her subject matter moves wildly through time and space, but is grounded in black history. In a Theater Week interview, citing “The America Play” as her personal favorite, she said: “I am so amazed by how the writing of that, the process itself, was so much like what goes on in the play. The whole thing is about the mother and son looking for Dad and can’t find him. And they are digging and digging. He is nowhere to be found, and suddenly one day there he is. Writing is just like that. It just happens.”
Parks’ writing has often been compared to music. She created a style she calls “repetition and revision” or “rep and rev.” Like jazz compositions, her recurring phrases of dialogue change slightly each time they are spoken.
“I love that she just kind of explodes conventional forms,” says Bevell. “It’s like a leap into the great unknown. As gorgeous as poetry. She writes these incredible puns and word plays. The play is set in The Great Hole of History. That has so many meanings, on so many levels. It’s a hole in the ground, a museum, a womb. Parks wants to create a tone, a mood, and in that is the story of this guy, both hilarious and tragic. It’s about loss and abandonment, but with wonderful compassion and humor. I don’t want to assign a meaning or theme. I just want to see what evolves, like a jazz score.”
So what are Bevell’s future theatrical fantasies? Directing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (“it’s filled with danger and forbidden sex”), and playing more quirky character roles.
“This community sort of defined me as a director who acts — on the basis of [directing] four plays! I think of myself as an actor who directs. I don’t necessarily just want to do the cutting-edge thing. Good theatre is good theatre.”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.