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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

One regional premiere and one world premiere open in Minneapolis

Illusion Theater revisits civil rights in Shephard-Massat's touching comedy

Set in 1961 Atlanta, award-winning playwright Sherry Shephard-Massat's Waiting to be Invited takes you on a bus ride deep into the South of the Civil Rights Movement. Shephard-Massat's grandmother and her two friends took it upon themselves to get off work early from their doll factory jobs to catch the bus into Atalanta and to integrate the all-white lunch counter at Rich's Department store. The Supreme Court decision of 1961 made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, but Atlanta resisted change. The bravery of these ordinary American women is the source of Shephard-Massat's play, Waiting to be Invited, at the Illusion Theater. The women banter back and forth with the bus driver, fall quiet when a bombastic white woman steps on the bus, and struggle to sustain their courage in the face of real fear.

"It's a very funny and moving play," says director Kent Stephens, "and it has a gorgeous organic structure that just doesn't stop as these women come closer to their desired goal and their greatest fear. This is a heroes' journey on a small scale. The richness of the dialogue is extraordinarily successful, and Miss Louise's speech at the end of the play will go down as one of the great speeches in American theater."

"The law is one thing," says Shephard-Massat, "but in reality it's something else. At Rich's, the store workers refused to serve you if you sat at the white counter. Blacks had to take their food to the basement. If you insisted on being served, you could get beaten on, or they spat in your food."

Shephard-Massat calls herself a folk writer. "I write dialectically about common folk, who are attached to the place they are a part of. A lot of my characters are amalgams of my family members; they're are all kooky and full of a whole lot of stuff."

Because her plays belong to the South, Shephard-Massat likes them to be directed by Southerners. "It's a cultural thing," she says. "The speech has to be rhythmic."

Stephens grew up in Atlanta, and taught Shephard-Massat when she was 14 in a high school creative writing class. "I was the first person to tell Sherry she could write," he remembers. He agrees that it helps for him to know instinctively the rhythms, sounds and characters in Waiting to be Invited. "But my ability to direct this play," he said, "is based on its structural completeness and the authenticity of its characters."

Stephens works with a strong cast. Denise Burse plays Shephard-Massat's grandmother, and she is upported by Kim Hines, Michael T. Rambo, Patti Shaw, Randy Latimer and Jamila Anderson. Northern audiences might take a few minutes to adjust to the Southern rhythms of speech but will quickly becomee absorbed in the its musicality.

Asked how her family members feel about being the subjects of plays like Someplace Soft to Fallc shown last season at Penumbra, Shephard-Massat laughed. "They don't know about theater. They won't take an interest unless I get rich. Then they'll say, 'Hey chile, what you doin'?"

Waiting to be Invited runs through Nov. 9. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 3 p.m. Illusion Theater, 8th Floor Hennepin Center for the Arts, Corner of 6th St./Hennepin Ave. Minneapolis. $15-26. 612-339-4944. www.illusiontheater.org.

Gadjusek's political thriller, Fair Game premieres at Eye of the Storm Theater

As the administration arm-twists a reluctant public into war with Iraq, now is the right time for a political thriller, and Eye of the Storm Theater premieres the right play.

Karl Gajdusek's Fair Game looks at the dubious underbelly of the political game. It tells the story of Governor Karen Werthman's bid to become the US's first woman president. She succeeded her husband into her state's governorship when he died eight years ago and has governed with skill and integrity. Now she's ready to be President Werthman, but scandals and machinations beyond her control threaten her chances of success.

"We live with the idea that politics is synonymous with shady dealing, deception and sliminess," says Eye of the Storm director Casey Stangle, "but there's a deep desire in the nation to have politics be different. This play asks why we feel this way about our political life, and can we step back and examine the way that politics are run?"

"It's not a political play, in that I don't take a political stand," insists Gajdusek. "It's a character-driven play about the workings of politics. I like to write about politics without bashing them."

Gajdusek believes many people get into politics for noble reasons and then get mired in the political muck. "Through all the slime," he says, "some people manage to hold their ideals up and do not get compromised."

He admits to being a political junkie since the age of 14, when he first began reading newspapers daily. "I devour newspapers. If I were not a playwright, I'd be a political manager. I've great admiration and great disdain for that world; I'm totally fascinated with it, and it drives completely nuts."

Gajdusek's Silver Lake, set in the world of the Los Angeles film industry, had a successful run at the Jungle Theater in 2000, and Stangle is familiar with Gajdusek's work from his Jerome Fellowship at the nationally recognized Minneapolis Playwright's Center. She commissioned Gajdusek to write a new play for Eye of the Storm's 2001 "Seed the Storm" series and decided to produce the full play on the mainstage. "I liked the juxtaposition between the political savvy, fast talk and the cynicism in Fair Game," she said, "and the deep longing for honorable political leadership."

Silver Lake was Gajdusek's first naturalistic play. "That and Fair Game" are a big evolution for me," he says. "I used to write more expressionist/abstract/surreal plays. I still like those, but in a huge language-bomb of a play, the actors have to trust me. In a more naturalistic, character-driven play, the immediate connection with the actors is so delicious."

Veteran Twin Cities' actor Claudia Wilkins leads a strong cast of Peter Thoemke, Ron Menzel, Elizabeth Teefy and Summer Hagen in Fair Game. Gajdusek has been on hand during rehearsals and is pleased with the play's production. "Eye of the Storm Theatre does the highest quality work among mid-sized theaters in the country," he says. "It's a very good home for me."

Fair Game runs through November 17. Thurdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 2:20 p.m. Eye of the Storm Theatre, corner of Franklin/Lyndale, Minneapolis. $12-$25. 612-343-3390. www.ticketworks.com


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area


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Elizabeth Weir



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