It's the last night of Carnival, New Orleans, 1900. Marie Laveau (a local voodoo priestess) "has a life-or-death problem she's facing," said playwright Frank Gagliano, "and the people--a music critic and a soprano--are coming to her with their problems, to have them solved magically. Even if they were skeptical before, it's gotten so bad that she's their last resort. But on this night, everything is different. Because Marie does not need them as clients, but victims. . . ."
Such is the shivery setting for "The Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau," opening Friday at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
"It's about the journey these people go through," added the New York-born, Columbia-educated Gagliano, 54. "Marie Laveau (a real-life character, though utilized here "mostly as a metaphor") uses the trappings of voodoo to get the people to reveal their innermost secrets: to get down to what's inside, at the marrow--the lurid and sexual. But it's all coming out of the trances she puts people in.
"It doesn't bother me ," he continued, "though some people (in previous workshop productions) do seem to be upset by the language. But there's an operatic mix--of Verdi and Wagner--which I think tends to sugarcoat the violence. That's something opera often does: it finesses. Lurid things go into opera, but you never quite feel that. Mine does the same thing, using very rich language (spoken, not sung) that is very operatic."
Gagliano, a Guggenheim and Rockefeller award winner (who's recently completed a novel, "Anton's Leap" and a new play, "From the Bodoni County Songbook: Part 1") made it clear, however, that the subject--though blatantly eclectic--envelops themes that are both modern and easily accessible.
"This is a contemporary play," he said, "written from a contemporary point of view, about a lot of things: corruption, judging people, how people delude themselves, the need for power--all aspects that I think are current and will be understood. The risk, of course, is trying to juggle so many things: storytelling--because there is a definite beginning, middle and end--beautiful language, and both dark and funny moments.
"But that's what I think dramatic art is all about: compressing. Compressing events. Here we're running one hour, 45 minutes without intermission. What I don't like are thimble-sized television plays: 20 minutes stretched to an hour and a half. I think those 20 minutes should be compressed to five minutes--and then go on from there.
"We all have different fingerprints," he continued. "When I go to a play, I want to hear a writer's particular voice, his individual fingerprints. I want to say, 'I never thought of that.' I think the idea of a playwright is to create and invent--and that's missing from so many plays. So our work is about the attempt, the journey, the risk. And it gets riskier all the time, because it isn't expected anymore."
Gagliano regularly shares those thoughts with his students at West Virginia University (where he's been for 10 years), teaching playwriting and "text analysis for play production," which he describes as "special techniques for bringing the words off the page.
"The first thing you do is read the script out loud: You have to say it, get it out. So we start with things like voicing the punctuation, really seeing what's there. Then we lock into vowels and consonants. Rhythms. When you come to a comma, really do the comma. Really do the period. And before you know it, you're beginning to understand the moment, the characters, impressions. Students become better readers--and they see more.
"Teaching is wonderful," he said. "It's opened a lot of doors for me as a writer. You don't make big money, but. . . . And it's all I can deal with now--because this is what I want out of theater. There's no brass ring anymore. One understands that now. The kind of play I write isn't going to be a big Broadway hit. So what I want is the process--to have fun with it, say something to the audience. Because that's what theater is about: text, actors and a live audience. You don't really need anything else."