Sunday, March 21, 2004

Humana put playwright's career on fast forward



By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Melanie Marnich first decided to take the risk of writing a play in the mid-'90s, when she was in Cincinnati writing advertising copy.

She moved back to her native Minnesota after earning a graduate degree in the playwriting program at University of California at San Diego.

While she's written several scripts for the Children's Theatre (including next season's revival of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), Marnich's visits to the region tend to be to Louisville, where she's now been featured twice in the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Her first win was in 2001 for Quake, a road trippin' dark comedy about identity filled with pithy dialogue and featuring a glamorous female serial killer.

Back with 'Tallgrass Gothic'

That changed her life, Marnich says emphatically. She's now back at Actors Theatre of Louisville and Humana with Tallgrass Gothic. Last weekend, she brought family members to join her on opening weekend and paused for a quick lobby chat.

"There's no place in the country that offers this level of exposure, this level of support and prestige," Marnich says. "Because of that (2001 Humana) production, Quake has been produced 15 times. It launched my career.

"The momentum generated by this festival just keeps going. I think it's proof that producing new work is viable and crucial and sustainable."

Marnich bubbles over with enthusiasm in conversation, which makes it even more intriguing that she's drawn to dark topics.

With Tallgrass Gothic, "the initial inspiration came from a director, Anne Kauffman. She said she wanted to work on an adaptation and that she liked the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling (filled with murder, vengeance, violence and sexual obsession and first produced in 1623).

"I said sure, not having read the original. I had no idea what I was getting into." It was incredibly difficult, Marnich says, until she simply scrapped the original, realized that she is "a hard-core Midwesterner," and used who she is and what she knows to find what was most compelling in the original work.

Gothic translates The Changeling narratively and theatrically into a new place and time, as a group of twentysomething friends are driven by boredom and lust.

"I relocate the play to the tall grass prairies of Kansas because, quite frankly, wide open spaces make me feel claustrophobic."

Working on commissions

Marnich is currently working on play commissions for Northlight Theatre Company in Chicago, Arena Stage in Washington, and Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, as well as doing some polishing on her version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Humana Festival continues through April 10. Other full-length plays at the festival include:

• After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo, which takes a hard look at victims and violence in the media today. "It often seems like TV crime shows are getting steadily more lurid and perverse," Gionfriddo has observed. "Reenactments interest me because they acknowledge entertainment value in violent crime, which is a weird, complicated idea for me."

•  Kid-Simple, a radio play in the flesh by Jordan Harrison, described as "part fairy tale, part meditation on the nature of sound." It "draws on everything from 1940s radio drama to B-movie adventures to contemporary literary criticism" to tell the story of a young girl who invents a machine that can hear beyond the human ear.

• The Ruby Sunrise by Rinne Groff (author of last year's Orange Lemon Egg Canary), which charts the development of television, from the idealism of its early creators to the censorship and commercial compromises that marked its "Golden Age" in the 1950s.

Also playing: the anthology Fast and Loose (an ethical collaboration) in which playwrights Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Kirsten Greenidge, Julie Marie Myatt and John Walch address fundamental questions of human conduct; and a program of 10-minute plays by Dan Dietz, Craig Wright, Vincent Delaney and Steven Dietz.

For reservations and information, call (502) 584-1205, (800) 428-5849 or order online at www.ActorsTheatre.org.

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E-mail jdemaline@enquirer.com




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