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Philly's Wilma Theater Offers Churchill Festival

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Philly's Wilma Theater Offers Churchill Festival

PHILADELPHIA -- For the first time in its history, the Wilma Theater is presenting a festival dedicated to the work of a single playwright. Running from April 19 to June 4, the Caryl Churchill Festival began with co-artistic director Blanka Zizka's staging of the playwright's groundbreaking 1979 play Cloud 9 (through May 28), and it continues with readings of Churchill's Top Girls, Traps, Fen, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, and Far Away; a symposium on bioethics in connection with her most recent work, A Number; and a production of that play, running May 9-June 4, directed by co-artistic director Jiri Zizka.

The festival was sparked, says Jiri Zizka, by his desire to direct A Number, an hourlong one-act: "I wanted to do the play, but it seemed a little short. So we decided to do something we had never done before, which was to do it in rep with another play." The idea for a festival took shape when he realized that Churchill's work "had never really been done before in Philadelphia in terms of a professional production. Here is someone who has influenced an entire generation of writers and has never been properly introduced here, so we added the five readings of her plays."

He describes Churchill as an "unpredictable" playwright who "never really repeats herself" -- her stylistic diversity is especially evident in Cloud 9 and A Number -- adding that some theatregoers may not recognize the plays as being by the same writer. Act I of Cloud 9 takes place in a British colony in Africa in the mid-19th century, when British colonialism was at its peak, while Act II is set in London roughly 100 years later. The work's unique construction requires actors to play not only a variety of ages, but in some cases different genders and races. No less challenging, A Number examines issues of identity in the story of a father and his three sons, two of whom are clones of the original child.

The plays' contrasts, Zizka says, will be physically accentuated by their sets, both designed by Mimi Lien, who won a Barrymore Award last season for her work on the Wilma's production of Itamar Moses' Outrage. Of Lien's designs, he says, "Cloud 9 is very colorful and expansive, and A Number is very contained -- it almost looks like the play is taking place in a test tube."

Following their usual practice, the Zizkas held auditions for the Churchill Festival in Philadelphia first, then later in New York. Because she thinks of actors as collaborators, says Blanka Zizka, she looks for "skilled and inventive" performers who can bring "fresh and interesting ideas to the project."

In Cloud 9, for example, "the acting is somewhat stylized and presentational. Actors are cast to play against their types. A man plays a woman, a woman plays a boy, a young actor plays an old character, and a white actor plays a black servant." In Act I of the play, "it's essential to capture the time period and the way the Victorians deny natural impulses. The actors' movements have to be spare, as if the characters lived in their heads and were disconnected from their bodies. Actors have to rely on language and express characters' thoughts through facial expressiveness." While in Act I the actors "portray a value system rather than individual characters," Act II requires a more naturalistic style in which "the characters are trying to understand who they are and what they like." Staging Cloud 9 is like "rehearsing two different plays at the same time," she adds.

The main challenge in casting A Number, says Jiri Zizka, was finding a young actor to play the three sons; although genetically identical, they are emotionally unique: "You have to find a young actor who can play three distinctly different characters." Actor Scott Barrow landed the role, Zizka says, because "it was thrilling to find someone who can do that through vocal placement, diction, rhythms, and body language."

For a festival schedule and more information, go to www.wilmatheater.org.

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