However tragic its circumstances and exotic its setting, the storyline of Robert Murphy‘s new play Love, Sex and Death in the Amazon — the inaugural production of a new company ambitiously called Collider Theater — can happen to anyone:
When Walter’s Brazilian partner passes away from leukemia, he knows that Ines, his superstitious mother-in-law, will be a handful. But when they travel to the Amazon to perform religious rituals to put Marcos’ spirit to rest, they get far more than they bargained for — eccentric birders, botched religious rituals, bisexual tour guides, poisonous spiders, and loads of Brazilian maternal drama.
As Murphy tells the CFR, the play is based on true, highly personal events. As for why he and veteran director Jean Randich have formed Collider Theater — that’s a tale of slight mystery but more of real commitment in a city with more theaters and companies than one can count. It’s a brave, admirable, laudable move.
And now, 5 questions Robert Murphy and Jean Randich have never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Jean Randich: As a director, I was most excited by an actor questioning when the spirit of Marcos in the play, who is trapped in Umbral — the shadow world between the living and the world of the spirits — actually knows he is dead. This question goes to the heart of consciousness after death, and theatrical language that will express a journey we can only imagine.
Robert Murphy: At the end of rehearsals we were working on the final fight scene, in which the boyfriend and the mother hurl insults at each other, leading to a catharsis of sorts. One of our actors asked us why it was that the mother confesses to her failures as a mother and the boyfriend (i.e., me) makes no similar confession. We literally scribbled that into the script, and the fight is much stronger as a result.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
RM: There are several points in the script where people discuss Marcos passing away from cancer. At one point in a writing class an actor asked me if Marcos died of AIDS. I said “No, cancer.” And he said, “Well, he was a gay man, so I assumed he died of AIDS.”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
RM: In another writing class we read a scene where a possessed Umbanda priest lays out what needs to happen for the son to leave the physical world. One of the writers in the group wondered if I’d thought about setting that scene in a restaurant.
Your theater company is dedicated to “telling stories about the collision of cultures here at home and around the world.” But inherent in the name is the idea of clashing, not harmony. How do you explore diversity through a company name that arguably connotes disharmony?
RM: The essence of drama is conflict. While we are dedicated to the exploration of diversity in American culture, a play about diverse cultures that live together in harmony and celebrate each other’s differences would most likely be dramatically inert.
JR: Actually the company name is Collider Theater, not Collision Theater. If you look up the word “collider,” you’ll find this definition:
An accelerator in which two beams of particles are made to collide.
The Hadron Collider is the largest such experimental accelerator in the world. Its purpose is to allow for the study of particle physics, to test our hypotheses about the behavior of particles, and to enhance our understanding of deep space and time. A “theatrical collider” is a place where differing cultures, races, religions, peoples, genders and sexualities can be smashed up against each other, as they are in our lives, and we can study what is created through what happens. We’re interested in drama that is chemical and electrical and created in the cauldron of a collider. We feature diversity in our design team — set and lighting by Jiyoun Chang, video projection by Sue Rees, costumes by Charles Schoonmaker — as well as in our top flight cast for this play: Mike Hodge, Zachary Infante, Julie Fain Lawrence, Ron Moreno, Chance Mullen, Carmen Roman, Debargo Sanyal and Max Wolkowitz.
Regarding your question about the noun form of the verb: “collision” — of perceptions, cultures, interests, genders and races — happen all the time, whether we acknowledge that or not. In fact, such tacit “collisions” often reinforce artificial barriers simply because mythic stereotypes once existed or still persist. We believe that through collaboration, acceptance and tolerance of difference, and through allowing collisions to occur, we can better explore how communication succeeds and/or fails. It’s the ancient stuff of drama, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to now. But it allows for all of us to accept our role in the success or failure of our shared lives.
What is the genesis for Love, Sex and Death in the Amazon? By its description, it seems on a limb, a bit “other” and “exotic.” Is it?
RM: There were two points of inspiration for the story. My partner passed away from leukemia in March 2011. I helped him get through two years of endless chemo treatment and hospital visits. We had considerable difficulty dealing with his mother right before he passed away — she speaks no English and fundamentally was not processing the fact that her son was dying. The second point of inspiration was a visit to the Southern Amazon in October 2011. I started to toy with the idea of what would happen if we had to drag my partner’s mother to the Amazon, and from that idea this play was born.
How many people have tried to talk you out of starting another New York nonprofit theater company? If the answer is “no one,” do you know what obstacles, fiscal and administrative, you’re facing? If the answer is “everybody,” what is your reply to the idea that creating a new theater company is nutty?
JR: We couldn’t possibly anticipate all the obstacles we are facing, nor how much of our lives this venture would consume. People who create do so out of passion. It’s the fire in the belly that must out. Luckily, we found collaborators, actors, designers and staff who also were on fire. We hope to grow our audience and keep that fire burning for a long, long time.
RM: I just put a production through tech week and had to make payroll. And we will spend the next few weeks literally dragging people off the street to see our show. I’ve become quite aware of the obstacles involved in mounting a theatre production in New York — even when everything goes relatively smoothly. To do this requires a deep, deep love for the work, because there’s no rational reason for doing this.