Pacific Playwrights Festival zeroes in on Zelda Fitzgerald, China’s Great Firewall
Zelda Fitzgerald. Vladimir Putin. The Great Firewall of China. These are some of the subjects discussed in the five staged readings debuting at this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Repertory.
Running April 24--26 at the Costa Mesa theater, the 23rd annual showcase of new works is part of the newly enhanced play development arm, the Lab@SCR. The festival has been a key springboard for oft-produced plays like Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band,” Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone,” Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” and Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You.”
“For many of these playwrights, this is the first time their play has been shared with an audience in any form,” Andy Knight, literary manager and festival co-director, said in an interview. “It’s an opportunity for them to get their voices heard by Southern California audiences, as well as industry professionals from around the country.”
Christie Baugher wrote the book, music and lyrics of “The Fitzgeralds of St. Paul,” a fictionalized reimagining of the infamous marriage of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald.
“Most American teenagers have to read ‘The Great Gatsby’ at some point in high school,” said Baugher. “But I didn’t learn about the bigger picture of their relationship until a lot later.”
Directed by Danny Mefford, the two-character musical examines how the things the couple were celebrated for in myth — the glamour, the excess, the booze — were also their downfall. It also illustrates what it’s like to be two artists often seen as one.
“Zelda is often looked upon as just the muse or the wife, and a lot of that is colored by her history with mental illness,” Baugher said. “She was an artist in her own right. I’m trying to peel back those layers and look at how important her creative spirit was.”
Tony Meneses’ “El Borracho” gets its title from the drunk in the Mexican game of chance, loteria. Directed by Dámaso Rodríguez, it zooms in on the final months of a man’s life, with his ex-wife forced to care for him and his son longing to share his secrets.
Anchuli Felicia King’s “Golden Shield” centers on a Chinese-American lawyer who mounts a case against the American tech company that fortified China’s “Great Firewall” and put Chinese citizens in mortal danger. Directed by Nana Dakin, the play is part corporate thriller and part legal drama — on a global scale.
Erika Sheffer’s “Vladimir” charts a crusading journalist running afoul of the Russian government and risking family, friends and freedom to uncover the truth.
“My parents emigrated from the Soviet Union with my brother in 1975, so I’ve always been invested in Russian politics,” Sheffer said.
“I’m interested in the hard choices characters have to make regarding a sense of humanity within a totalitarian state,” she added. “Do you preserve your dignity, or do you preserve your life?”
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the suspenseful drama is set just after Putin’s 2004 reelection. His presence is felt throughout the piece, though he’s not a speaking character — a decision that best serves the story and the playwright.
“Anytime you write something, you know you’re gonna spend a couple of years with those people, and I was like, I don’t want to do that to myself,” Sheffer said with a laugh.
Shayan Lotfi’s “Park-e Laleh” follows a queer man seeking asylum in Britain after fleeing persecution in his native Iran. Haunted by the love he left behind, he attempts to settle in a city of strangers and find anything or anyone to help him finally feel at home.
“We hear about the things that are happening in terms of policy, but how does that impact someone who’s experiencing it at a very day-to-day level?” Lofti asked.
“It’s a very specific story, but I’m excited to see how it plays with such a big audience, and especially as diverse as Orange County,” he said. “When writing plays, you work in a vacuum and imagine what people’s reactions will be, but you don’t really know until you have an audience. This will be very helpful for me as I move forward with the piece.”
The Pacific Playwrights Festival also includes panels and events, as well as two previously announced world-premiere productions: Kate Hamill’s literary adaptation “The Scarlet Letter” (March 28-April 25) and Caroline V. McGraw’s romantic drama “I Get Restless” (April 12-May 3).
“We’re just finishing up casting now, and it’s fun to see actors standing on their feet with the scripts — the first step to ‘dimensionalizing’ the pieces,” artistic director David Ivers said. “We get to see creative minds come together to bring these two plays to life in full productions. It’s undeniably exciting.”
Exact dates and times, single tickets and ticket packages are available online.
Pacific Playwrights Festival
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: April 24-26
Tickets: $19 and up
Info: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org
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