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(Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2001)



Famous playwrights typically don't plop their hot new scripts in the laps of theater companies they've never heard of. They also don't make it a habit of hanging out with these less-experienced artists to talk shop - let alone give them the green light to debut their latest play at a cramped storefront theater.

But two young Chicago troupes have managed to snare world premieres from two big-name playwrights. And the scribes even agreed to fly in to collaborate on the productions.

Tenacity and chutzpah paid off for Naked Eye Theatre Company - only in its third season - premiering New York playwright Timothy Mason's "Cannibals" through Mar. 11 at A Red Orchid Theatre; and the eight-year-old Dolphinback Theatre Company unveiling Los Angeles playwright Lee Blessing's "Rewrites," Mar.19-Apr. 28, at Chopin Theatre.

Just five days before "Cannibals" opened early this month, Mason headed from the airport to a Chinese restaurant next to A Red Orchid Theatre in Old Town. He was joined by Naked Eye's literary manager-dramaturg Sarah Gubbins. Jeremy B. Cohen, Naked Eye's artistic director, dropped in for a bite after taking the actors through their first run-through. The director looked weary and starved. So Mason quickly offered him a shrimp dumpling to boost his energy.

This concerned gesture mirrored the artists' respectful working relationship.

Gubbins initially read "Cannibals" - a complex drama inspired by the disappearance in the 1960s of Michael Rockefeller in the jungles of Papua, New Guinea - and pushed for Naked Eye to produce it. The troupe wrote to Mason's agent and sent along a packet of their achievements.

"My agent called me," said Mason, "and encouraged me to work with Naked Eye - a very young, very small and very well-thought of company in Chicago. Then he added, 'In fact, Tim, they're hot.'"

Mason and Cohen met for dinner in New York last year when Cohen was directing a workshop production of Naomi Wallace's "The Retreating World" at Princeton University's McCarter Theatre. Both developed an immediate rapport and realized they were "on the same page." Earlier this year, Mason came here to be part of the initial rehearsals. He put ego aside and let the Naked Eye folks make suggestions.

"I wrote the script two years ago," explained Mason. "But I wanted to revise it during rehearsals because that's when the good revisions come.

"I realized we were on the right track when, at the end of three days of rehearsal, we all had this wonderful Sunday afternoon [discussion] at Café Boost, and I knew exactly what I needed to do to make the script more immediate. I worked on clarity and focus and finding the urgency in each story."

"Cannibals" originated as a one-act called "Three-Part Inventions," which refers to the musical idea of creating a central theme then varying it. The drama jumps from the 1980s to the 1960s and back, following six inter-connected characters (played by two actors) forced to examine their purpose in life.

Naked Eye needed to find a solid dramatic through-line. Simply having an open dialogue with the playwright resolved these concerns.

"This has been my dream," said Cohen, "to be able to talk with a writer and have him ask me, 'How can you and I work together to take the text and move it along? It's not just about cutting and trimming but coming to an understanding of our intentions together.

"Tim, unlike some other playwrights, really came to support the play and the production. He didn't come to protect it out of fear that we would ruin it."

During the second run-through in one night, actors Tom Carroll and Erik Lochtefeld were - as Mason described - "shoveling through a mountain of words" for two non-stop hours. Mason watched quietly and intensely. By 11 p.m., playwright, director, actors and designers were sharing notes about blocking, pulling back and establishing clear connections between each scene.

"We have to find a balance," Cohen told the cast. "These characters have learned important life lessons, but no one is skipping around being happy. It can't feel pat."

Over the next three days, which included a dress rehearsal and two previews, Mason and Cohen watched their project take exhilarating shape, especially when the audience arrived.

Before he flew back home, Mason commented on Cohen's "clarity of vision and wonderful humility before the text."

Dramaturg Gubbins also stressed Naked Eye's respect for Mason's original play:"People seem to have the notion when you do a new play that there are going to be a lot of changes. But we also felt a commitment toward the script. If every T and period remained the same, that would be okay too."

Since the fall, Dolphinback Theatre Company has been corresponding on-line with Lee Blessing for the apropos-named "Rewrites," which began in 1994 as an entirely different play called "The Rights." So few original T's and periods have survived.

"We've been moving in the direction of original work," said Matt Wallace, Dolphinback's artistic director. "Our last project was a new musical written by our ensemble members. This is such an exciting step because Lee Blessing - who is so respected across the country - has chosen to devote so much of his time to working on this play with us."

The partnership came about serendipitously. Wallace was performing in a show at Illinois Repertory Theatre, based at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. There he met Ellen Bean Larabee, a Blessing scholar, who will be directing "Rewrites." They shared a common love of the playwright's poetic language and his balanced take on controversial issues.

"Rewrites" originally centered on a documentary filmmaker returning home to produce a sensationalistic film about his eccentric relatives. The current reality-based TV craze prompted Blessing to re-focus the comedy on a desperate TV executive who comes back home - a Frank Lloyd Wright mansion - to exploit his mentally troubled family in a "Real World"-style show.

Director Larabee, in Chicago to share the writer's latest streamlined scenes with the cast, noted that Blessing tends to overwrite, then listens to the actors speak the words and hones from there. When Blessing arrives in Chicago in March, more revisions will no doubt unfold.

During a telephone interview from Ohio's Denniston University, where he's teaching playwriting, Blessing acknowledged his give-and-take approach, which bodes well for future creative partnerships of this kind.

"We've all agreed that the artists will give me as much freedom as I need over the next few weeks to send over new scenes," Blessing said. "So they will be getting pages as we go along. "I look forward to being part of the rehearsals. I like to listen to the words being spoken. I usually don't make huge changes at that time. It's more about trimming and focus. I've always felt very strongly that, when a production is taking shape, the director has to be the clearing house for my inspirations." •
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