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Two complicated contemporary plays about war and art are opening soon on Salt Lake City stages.
People Productions presents "Grounded," George Brant's one-woman play about a female F-16 fighter pilot, grounded to Las Vegas due to an unexpected pregnancy, who now flies drone strikes on the "Chairforce." The story revolves around her increasing trouble separating work and home lives. The play comes with a notable dramatic pedigree, thanks to the attention sparked by its 2015 New York run featuring Oscar-winning actor Anne Hathaway, directed by Tony-winning Julie Taymor of "The Lion King" fame (and "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" infamy).
The Hive Theatre Company presents British playwright Martin McDonagh's darker-than-dark 2003 comedy "The Pillowman," about a writer, Katurian, in a police state who is accused of heinous crimes thanks to his fictional stories, which might be read, according to the script, as "101 ways to skewer a 5-year-old."
Hive director Tiffany Greathouse calls the story "horribly uplifting." It's the company's second production of a McDonagh play, following its 2013 run of "A Behanding in Spokane," about a killer looking for the hand he lost 25 years earlier. McDonagh, considered one of the most important living Irish playwrights, is noted for his dark humor and imagery, which tends to make his plays rarely produced in Utah, Greathouse understates.
'Grounded' • Brant's story offers a rare tour-de-force female role at a time when the Utah-based Stratera Foundation and other arts groups are challenging theater's male domination.
The Utah regional premiere features Ali Lente, a Westminster College graduate recently seen in Salt Lake Acting Company's "Tribes" and Pygmalion Theater Company's "The Weyward Sisters," in what director Richard Scharine calls "a hell of a role."
What makes the script so relevant is how "Grounded" poses complicated questions about the psychological costs of contemporary warfare, at the same time civilians are beginning to realize the extent of modern surveillance. "We are being watched as well," Scharine says. "We don't need Edward Snowden to tell us this."
Scharine says some of the questions sparked by the story are: At what point does "combat" become "jihad"? And what is the difference between "a personality strike" and "an assassination"? "We've got wars that nobody wants to die for anymore," he says.
In "Grounded," the unnamed pilot chases terrorists via computer by day, then drives south across the desert to her family at night. Her husband, a blackjack dealer, makes her a mixtape of songs to help her decompress on her commute home.
"Poor saps. You can't hide from the eye in the sky, my children," she tells the computer screen early on. Yet day-after-day of shifts spent listening to voices via her headset begins to take a psychological toll. When she realizes that she's seeing, via her camera eye, flying body parts after a strike, the swagger she developed as an elite Air Force pilot begins to fade.
The story unfolds through the character's stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and Brant's script is embedded with archetypes from Greek mythology. "She's telling us a story, and the character is not really aware of the nature of the story she's telling us," Scharine says. "She doesn't get the significance of things."
Over time, the pilot is increasingly unable to separate her home life from her work life. "That's not unusual, but usually our work lives don't involve killing people with rockets," Scharine says.
'The Pillowman' • If there's a fictional character completely devoted to the importance of storytelling, it's McDonagh's Katurian, played by Matthew Windham in Hive Theatre's show.
The writer defends the twisted crimes in his fictions, even while investigators challenge him about real-life murders that happen to resemble the details in his stories.
Greathouse says she admires how McDonagh's main character clings to his art, no matter what he is accused of.
"The idea of a world without art just kind of breaks my heart. That's kind of what draws me to it," says Greathouse, who earned a filmmaking degree from the University of Utah and describes herself as a musician, director, actor and artist.
She says the precision of McDonagh's storytelling and his cleverness in mining the story's dark humor prompt a complicated response. "A lot of times you don't think you should laugh, but he dares you to," she says.
The play's 2005 run prompted The New York Times' Charles McGrath to take notice of playgoers' particular discomfort at scenes of torture, dismemberment and child molestation. "The Pillowman" is told with touches of slapstick and farce, nodding to Kafka, Mamet, Beckett, the Brothers Grimm and horror films such as "Nightmare on Elm Street." It's either "the blackest of comedies or the most cheerful and affirming of tragedies. Or perhaps both at once," McGrath wrote.
The play was produced at the University of Utah's Studio 115 in 2008, and apparently the story has some local devotees. Presales to the company's shows are usually people she and her co-founder and husband, Jared Greathouse, know, the director says. But for this show, strangers have been signing up.
People Productions presents George Brant's one-woman play.
When • April 14-24: Thursday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; 2 p.m. Sunday; additional 2 p.m. matinee April 23
Where • Sugar Space Arts Warehouse, 132 S. 800 West, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15, $10 students/seniors, at the door; peopleproductions.org
The Hive Theatre Company presents British playwright Martin McDonagh's Kafka-esque horror story.
When • April 22-23 and 29-30; 8 p.m.
Where • Sorenson Unity Center, 1383 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15 in advance; $17 at the door; hivetheatre.com/buy-tickets