note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
By Sara Itkis
I am going to see a play tonight: Living in Exile, by Jon Lipsky. This is not a theater review. This is an in memoriam. For whom? For Jon Lipsky, the playwright, who passed away on March 17, 2011, the opening night of Living in Exile.
I have never met Mr. Lipsky, nor do I know very much about his life and art. I know that he taught at Boston University until his cancer forced him to retire. I know that he had consulted with the director and actors of the Actors Shakespeare Project when they set out to stage his play. I know that he had been hoping to see a performance of it himself. And I know a little about the creative process that went into the staging of Living in Exile. I was there, as the stage management intern.
As “The Intern,” my job was to observe and learn. I did help with set-up and clean-up, I ran lines with the actors once or twice, and I took line notes during the final dress rehearsal. But most of the time, I simply sat by Jeff Kubiatowicz, the assistant stage manager, and watched. I watched as, on the first day, the crew was introduced to the playing space and as Allyn Burrows, director, delineated his ideas for how we would approach the script: we would stage it in a Seventies “sunken living room,” with two students hosting the audience as they summoned the characters of the play to tell its ancient story. This would help convey the “cyclical time and transient nature of things” - his words, not mine. I listened as Bob Walsh and Tamara Hickey read their lines on the first read-through, feeling their way through the script, and exploring their characters. I watched as the blocking (i.e. the movements of the actors) was set and re-set as Bob sustained a back injury and was made to perform from a wheelchair. I watched as, during the final week, we moved into the real performance space, and as the pieces of the play finally came together and the sound and lighting effects kicked in.
Living in Exile tells the story of The Iliad from the perspectives of the Greek king, Agamemnon; the great warrior and demi-god, Achilles; and his cousin, Patroklos - all played by Robert Walsh; and Briseis, Achilles’s war prize - played by Tamara Hickey. When I read the script before the first rehearsal, it felt abstract; I couldn’t quite grasp it. But from the very first read-through, the words began to take shape. As I listened to Bob and Tam read their lines, their inflections and emphases gave new meanings to the words. Bob uttered the syllables as if they had real shapes; I could feel him weighing the sounds on his tongue as he spoke. As rehearsals continued, his magnificent voice would change more and more drastically as he transitioned between the three characters that he played, and all three of them came alive as individual personalities. Even when we had to re-block the entire play with Bob in a wheelchair (and a great deal of pain), he somehow managed to not only maintain, but to deepen and expand on all three characters.
It was with Tamara, however, that I empathized most. It seemed to me that she started out also not quite grasping the script, not quite feeling Briseis’s drive. She would speak her lines casually - but through her practical approach to her character, the poetically abstract lines began to feel more human and relatable. I watched as her understanding of Briseis grew and grew. I watched as, with the help of the director (who is also her husband - fun fact!), she gained a stronger grasp on the character’s motives and psyche. I watched as she broke down in tears while rehearsing a particularly harsh scene. And I watched as, slowly, under the influence of the director and actors, the script came to life.
Writing this now, having finished my internship and waiting to finally see the whole show front to back with no script on my lap, I know that the play will be good. I know that it will be about the human relationships against the background of this epic war. I know it will be about anger, despair, denial, and ultimately, compassion and forgiveness. And I know that that’s what it had been about all along - I just hadn’t seen it.
I want to thank Allyn Burrows, Robert Walsh, Tamara Hickey, Ruby Fox and Bill Barclay for letting me watch and listen and for helping me see the essence of the play. Thank you to Phyllis Smith and Jeff Kubiatowicz for teaching me about theater and for showing me the works. But above all, thank you to Jon Lipsky; it was an honor to be a part of your play.