A slanted stage simulating a sinkhole gave 20-year theater veteran Don Taylor a new challenge when he directed Michael McKeever’s play 37 Postcards for Jewel Box Theatre earlier this year, and directing a second McKeever play, Suite Surrender, for the theater is giving him another set of problems to solve.
“This is a farce, a wild farce,” Taylor said of the upcoming production. “So the comedy comes down to absolute split-second timing, lots of people coming and going very, very quickly. So the second one door closes, another one has to open instantly and someone else comes in. That’s the challenge with this type of show. Everyone needs to be ready at their mark and ready to go when the gun fires or the door slams.”
Surrender, set entirely in the presidential suite of a hotel in Miami before a war benefit concert in 1942, centers around two Hollywood starlets — played by Bailey Maxwell and Zaneen Hotchkiss — mistakenly double-booked in the same room. Since their relationship is comparable to the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — recently featured in the TV miniseries Feud — this accommodation oversight poses a problem for everyone involved.
“The two divas tend to hate each other pretty violently and pretty hilariously,” Taylor said. “The staff tries to make sure these two never see each other even though they’re both in the same suite at the same time.”
Hence all the slamming doors and a serious physical challenge for actors, even without a slanted stage.
“We are totally level on this one,” Taylor said. “[But] there’s a lot of running and we have a lot of stairs at the Jewel Box Theatre. There’s four entrances to the stage. All of them have stairs leading up to them, so I have to tell the actors, ‘Be fast but be very careful. And maybe wear flats. I know all ladies wore heels in the ’40s, but we might actually need to have to not do that in this show.’”
Taylor said costume designer Jeffrey Meek will have to make another alteration to the play’s World War II-era fashion sensibility to make it suitable for the stage.
“Costumers tend to love that era because the clothing and the styles both for men and women were just so sharp,” Taylor said. “Everyone wore really big hats, but unfortunately, onstage, you don’t really get to do that because it blocks the light from the faces.”
Taylor said the play’s eight human actors will be joined onstage by “one adorable little dog” named Sassy, and although Sassy has plenty of stage experience, Taylor said her part in this play presented a problem because the script calls for her to be “hurled off a 10-story balcony window.”
“You can’t beat that for comedy,” Taylor said, laughing. “That was kind of a blocking challenge. How am I going to hurl this dog off a balcony without actually hurling this dog off a balcony? Got it solved though. It will happen.”
Since Suite Surrender is following the intense, highly charged drama To Kill a Mockingbird in Jewel Box’s schedule this season, Taylor said a lighthearted comedy is exactly what he was looking to direct but he chose the play without realizing it had the same author as 37 Postcards.
“My stage manager Amandanell Bold and I just got together one night and read script after script after script here at my house until we ran across that one, and I just loved it and thought it was hilarious,” Taylor said. “It was only after we got on the schedule that someone said, ‘Did you notice the author’s name?’”
Stylistically, Taylor said, Surrender differs significantly from the absurd family-centered comedy of Postcards. Taylor said he was drawn to Surrender’s finale.
“There’s a really good twist at the end,” he said. “I won’t reveal, of course, but it was the twist at the end that put it over the top. I was like, ‘Oh, we have to do this. That was just too clever.’”
At this point in his career, Taylor said he would rather direct plays with names people don’t immediately recognize.
“Probably the last four or five shows I’ve directed are shows that probably no one has heard of,” he said. “It’s something new and fresh. … We have all the classics, and we love the classics. To Kill a Mockingbird — wonderful, wonderful story, great, great play. But it was itself a brand-new play at one time, and look what happened to that one. So I like to find things that I think people are probably not familiar with that I think are really good and tell that story to the audiences and give them that experience.”
Part of the experience of directing comedy that Taylor said he enjoys is seeing what the actors bring to their roles.
“Whatever idea the director has might be a little different than what the actor has, so you just let them go, let them do their thing,” he said. “Sometimes they will bring things to a character that you never thought of that are very funny. … Even though it’s funny and slapstick and all that, these are artists, these actors, and watching them bring these characters to life and the little nuances they bring to them is just enjoyable to watch the process.”
8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays Thursday-Oct. 22
Jewel Box Theatre
3700 N. Walker Ave.
Print headline: Suite struggle, Jewel Box Theatre stages a wild farce about two feuding divas.