Times change; faces, too. But the essence of our overall story remains.
Makalani Theatre Ensemble is shifting location and personnel in its fourth year. The annual production is departing its previous home in the University of South Alabama’s Laidlaw Performing Arts Center for midtown’s Center for Joyful Living (60 N. Ann St.).
What won’t change is the focus on small casts and thoughtful stage plays. That was the point when USA drama instructors Keone Fuqua and Christopher Peck formed Makalani less than five years ago.
The pair took turns at directing and acting. That’s changed for the upcoming production of “Beyond Therapy.”
“Chris is in Denver now and Keone is going back and forth each day to [William Carey University in] Hattiesburg, so I think it was a little bit of a time crunch for everybody,” director Cory Olson said.
Makalani stage manager Nadine Brooks made Olson an offer in February. Their longtime friendship and professional familiarity greased the skids.
“We worked together last fall on ‘[A] Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Mobile Theatre Guild. We’re both on the board over there. We’ve both directed other things in town and respect each other’s work,” Olson said.
Those previous projects included his directing shows at both Joe Jefferson Playhouse and MTG in recent years. He also did some direction in Shreveport, Louisiana, before relocating to Mobile.
Then there was Olson’s time behind the cameras in Bulgaria. A Peace Corps stint 10 years ago took him to Eastern Europe, and near its conclusion someone approached him about producing and directing a short-lived TV show. Of course he accepted.
For Makalani, Olson didn’t hesitate in looking toward playwright Christopher Durang, since he recently helped steer JJP toward Durang’s “Vonya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” While this new piece revolves around the quirks of the dating world, it isn’t altogether comedy or drama.
“It’s maybe not the typical Makalani show, since in the past they’ve stayed a little more on the drama and this is a little bit lighter. To me, Makalani is much more actor-driven and focused on the players, which this is. Plus, nobody else in Mobile is going to do this, just because of the subject matter and the language,” Olson said.
The story opens with Prudence and Bruce meeting over a restaurant table in response to each other’s newspaper personal ads. There’s the customary awkwardness, the probing and missteps until we discover Bruce is a cohabitating bisexual looking for something new.
Cue a harried retreat to their respective therapists and things grow more farcical. The shrinks, it seems, are as neurotic as their patients.
Olson said Durang’s post-script directions are explicit about the actors playing their roles straight and not verging toward purposeful comedy. The humor is evoked by the emotional tension, the uncomfortable way we relate to it and simply the writing itself.
“I think a lot of his writing is inspired by Chekhov. People always said Chekhov’s plays are dramas or tragedies, and he always called them comedies. Now, there’s no tragedy, but there’s definitely some tension and strife in this,” Olson said.
Set in the 1980s, the play has a few period-specific aspects: the personal ads in newspapers, the recent staging of “Equus” and other bits. They only serve to underscore the universality of its emotional landscape.
“We’re still doing the same things, just with different technology. I think it’s a fun way of looking back and seeing how dating life has evolved and hasn’t, how the personal ad has evolved to what it is now. Now we have pictures and we can swipe left or right, but even back then there was lying and catfishing,” Olson said.
The six-person cast includes several seasoned vets of the Mobile area theater scene and one with some Off-Broadway notches on his belt. Olson is especially tickled at one aspect of their background.
“Getting to direct other directors is always fun, plus it helps to have some input from people who have done it before,” Olson chuckled.
They’ve been in rehearsal since early April. Without access to a full-time performance space — the Center for Joyful Living will be converted for the show — they’ve taken to apartments and other spots for those run-throughs.
Set to run May 18-20 and 25-27 with an 8 p.m. curtain, tickets are $15, $13 for students and military. Group rates are available.
The director thinks attendees will find something familiar in the play. He did.
“Things in the show I’ve experienced myself but you keep trying and trying through these dating nightmare scenarios. There are some wonderful awkward moments in there, everything from feet on the dinner table to your boyfriend’s boyfriend’s mother calling in the middle of your date,” Olson said.