After winning a much-prized invitation to a national theater festival, 30 members of the California Lutheran University drama department last week traveled to Ogden, Utah, to put on an edgy version of one of Tennessee Williams' most shocking plays - "Suddenly Last Summer."
Despite a 16-hour bus ride and a frenetic schedule, the students were thrilled to be part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, which is based in Washington, D.C., and in part supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
"It went great," said director Nate Sinnott. "I mean, the kids are exhausted. We got in at 8 in the morning (Wednesday), and went straight to unloading the set, and at 12 we were into our costumes, and at 2:30 was the first show. But the response from the two judges was very positive. One said, 'I think I know Tennessee Williams pretty well, and I think he really would have liked this show.' "
To be part of the regional showcase in Utah, which featured 13 productions, the CLU group had to be chosen from thousands of productions across the country. Gregg Henry, the festival's artistic director, said only about one out of every 60 college productions that compete are invited to one of the eight regional showcases.
"If you want to use a sports model, it's a little bit like the NCAA (basketball) tournament, except that there is no Final Four," he said. "There is a possibility of winning a national award, but there is no one winning production. It's a sharing opportunity, and to be invited is honor enough."
The week of performances, talks, and workshops was to conclude Saturday with the awarding of scholarships and fellowships, plus the naming of a handful of play productions that will advance to the national competition.
Among past award recipients is Kunal Nayyar, who won a prize for comedy writing and now appears as the character Raj on the popular situation comedy "The Big Bang Theory." The festival also gives awards for musical theater production and other categories, including directing, playwriting, acting, set design and lighting.
Sinnott, an assistant professor who began as a set designer, provided stark staging for the CLU production. Although Williams set the first half of the drama in a wealthy widow's tropical garden and the second half in an insane asylum, Sinnott chose to stage the drama inside the asylum.
Under glaring lights and with ominous music playing, the central characters stand in front of a high wall of bars behind which white-coated attendants stand and stare threateningly. The characters - one of whom is a young girl facing a lobotomy - fight with their words on a floor that slopes toward the audience and then dissolves into broken tiles and mud.
"Honestly, for the majority of rehearsals, it was difficult to see (Sinnott's) vision," said Brent Ramirez, who plays a doctor intent on performing a lobotomy. "That is true for most shows, but I feel even more so with this one. It really feels like I am in a nightmare every night. It's brilliant."
The play pits a wealthy widow who adored her late son Sebastian against a troubled young relative, Catherine, who was there when Sebastian died and knows he was killed and torn apart by street hustlers. The widow can't bear to hear this and wants Catherine silenced, and offers to fund the doctor's research if he will lobotomize Catherine.
--- Published in the Ventura County Star on Feb. 12, 2012