Baby Steps: Shotgun Players slowly open up with latest play ‘The Claim’

Shotgun Player Artistic Director Patrick Dooley says the “stop/start/forward/backward nature” of the company’s return to live performances in October is cautious. “We’re baby-stepping,” he says.

Even as they hold safety central—more on that below—the company, by opening the fall season with playwright Tim Cowbury’s three-hander The Claim, takes a giant, splashy, comedic and tragic theatrical dive into absurdity. Director Rebecca Novick says The Claim is a play about borders, refugees and immigration, with a script that avoids using those exact words—which in themselves carry their own kind of baggage. Studying the play since early 2020, when it was originally scheduled to be presented, caused her to reflect and think about the danger and falsity of stories forced to be told within a pre-existing, prefab mold. Dooley admires a play that reveals the folly and horror of desperate desires never satiated, while also posing questions about the power of language. “What gets lost in translation? Who controls what words mean? Whoever controls the narrative has the power,” he asks.

The Claim tells the story of Serge, a man seeking asylum in the U.K. His efforts to scramble through the country’s bureaucratic maze spin from absurd to hilarious to bleak to agonizing, awkward and hellacious. The script arrives breezy-smart with a primary comedic factor grounded in protagonist Serge’s blend of French and broken English that is often unnecessarily translated by characters . An aggressive undercurrent of ferocity and subtle nuances, which has reviewers of the production—and even Cowbury—labeling it as “Kafkaesque,” relates to the play’s portrayals of bizarre nationalist structures, nightmarish cultural bias, literal misinterpretations and the larger picture painted of the complexities of living with or without privilege.

“This play made me haunted by the privilege of being born into a place where freedom is an expectation,” Dooley says. “If life, liberty and freedom’s pursuit are not always an easy thing in the United States, they are still enshrined in this country. What does it mean to have safety being something you can’t take for granted?”

Theater, he suggests, is at its best when it is decidedly unsafe and forces us to question our own assumptions and understanding of the world and its people. “Theater occupies not a binary space, but a liminal space between light and dark, a middle space we might occupy for only a second,” he says. “That’s where humanity is: not in a place of two sides only, which is an unhealthy place from which to observe the world.”

Dooley admits it’s easy, as a playwright, to slip into a strong message and a “there’s one right answer and the other things are all wrong” mentality. “Theater isn’t interesting when you do that,” he says. “When we’re challenged to think about things differently, or challenge our preconceptions, it’s more important. For example, a play about climate change and how awful it is—done in Berkeley—is greeted with ‘Yay, yay!’ But what does that mean? I’m more interested in works that aren’t propaganda that we tune out, that we do not invest ourselves in. We can just pat ourselves for being so smart as to have aligned with the playwright. I’m not interested in reinforcing anyone’s world view with theater.”

Novick, as she seeks to steer the play’s comic and tragic elements, asks and subsequently answers for herself a question: “How do we make people feel willing to watch a difficult story? In this play the comedy keeps them engaged and highlights the darkness we reach. I can count on Tim’s script to guide the pacing. The playwright shifts the balance away from comedy as the play progresses. It constantly titrates the mix of comedy and tragedy so it’s gradual.”

In addition to the foundational game-within-a-game, “English pretending to be French translated into English” mechanism, Novick emphasizes that translation—and mistranslation or misheard words—is integral to the play’s humor. “The whole story goes wrong on the word ‘gum,’ when it’s thought to be ‘gun,’ and there’s a major misunderstanding of the language,” Novick says. Serge’s “gum” that he insists is chewed for “peace,” his interpreters misunderstand as “gun” and “piece”; they then assume this demonstrates his access to U.S. television crime shows and real-life gun violence.

“But the primary conflict in the play is the result of the three characters’ desire to fit a story into a model,” Novick says. “Near the end of the play Serge says almost apologetically, ‘I’m not the victim or the villain you want me to be.’ They’re trying to stick him into those roles. It plays with the metaphor of theater itself, with lines that ask me to think what role is actually being played, what character is assumed, what story is being told? Sometimes trying to make a story a better story for a play is dangerous. It might be harmful to the real people whose lives the story is about.”

Invited to step away from the play itself and speak about Novick’s particular skills and attributes as a director, Dooley says a play with only three characters leaves a director nowhere to hide. “I’ve been watching Rebecca since the 1990s, when she started Crowded Fire, and later, when she worked with us at Shotgun,” he says. “When you get a play like this one, you need a director who can talk to actors, not tell them what to do—but help them find direction themselves. Compared to other directors I’ve known, she can get an actor to a discovery with fewer words than other directors. It’s not about what she has to say, it’s about getting them talking, telling their stories and ideas. Then she shapes that—and it’s so much more powerful than another process.”

Returning to safety and comments he hears from audiences he says are eager to return to live theater and “incredibly patient and understanding,” Dooley says that erring on the side of caution means safety protocols will be in place on opening night and throughout the run of the play. In an email, he says, “We’re requiring that everyone show proof of vaccination and wear a mask. We won’t be serving concessions so folks won’t need to remove their masks to eat/drink. Actors will not be masked but everyone in the creative team wears masks offstage and gets tested weekly. We also added a Reme Halo LED filter to our HVAC unit to kill 99% of microbials in the space.”

Click here for information about “The Claim. In addition to live, in-person performances, there are live-stream performances on Oct. 21 and 28 at 7pm, and a virtual Zoom post show conversation Oct. 24 at 8 pm.

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