The long-term relationship between Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen and Salt Lake City's Plan-B Theatre Company started with one 10-minute play.
A decade ago, Samuelsen penned an entry in Plan-B's inaugural "SLAM" called "The Butcher, the Beggar, and the Bedtime Buddy." Plan-B producing director Jerry Rapier liked what he saw and suggested that Samuelsen develop it into a full-length play. The result was "Miasma."
"Amerigo" and "Borderlands" followed in subsequent seasons. And during the next year, Plan-B will stage an entire slate of Samuelsen plays.
"It seemed like the most logical step if we were going to do another season of a local writer's work," Rapier explains. "I think it's a shame that doesn't happen more. We have a special relationship with Eric, and I think our audiences have a very special relationship with his work. I wanted to explore that further."
The "season of Eric," as Rapier likes to call it, gets under way next weekend with a staged reading of Samuelsen's translation of Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts." Samuelsen is fluent in Norwegian and wrote his doctoral dissertation on this groundbreaking playwright, called the father of modern drama for his explorations of controversial issues. Although Ibsen comes across in most translations as dark and gloomy, Samuelsen says there is a lot of humor in the original Norwegian.
"My effort is to find a more informal American idiom and moments of comedy and especially the satiric wit that I think is central to who Ibsen was," he observes.
Samuelsen views "Ghosts" as a sequel to "A Doll's House," which Plan-B read last August. " 'A Doll's House' is a play about a woman who leaves her husband. 'Ghosts' is about what happens if she hadn't left," he says drolly. "It's an excoriating attack on the Victorian sexual double standard, the whole notion of male privilege. It's actually Ibsen's answer to the question 'Are you a feminist?' "
Next Plan-B will do a reading of "Miasma," the play that started it all, as part of "The Rose Exposed" on Labor Day weekend. The play features two actors from the original production, April Fossen and Joe Debevc, along with Bob Nelson and Stephanie Howell.
"The reason we decided to do that is to remind people how our relationship with Eric started," Rapier explains.
History onstage • The actual season begins Oct. 24 with "Nothing Personal," Samuelsen's portrait of the persecution and imprisonment of Susan McDougal. In the mid-1990s, McDougal was jailed for contempt of court when she refused to testify about Whitewater before Kenneth Starr's grand jury during the Clinton administration. The play explores the loss of civil liberties and violations of human rights that have become increasingly prevalent in American political life.
"Clearing Bombs," Plan-B's February production, also has its roots in history. Here Samuelsen recounts what he imagines happened during World War II when opposing economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek spent a night on the roof of King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, charged with extinguishing fires from German incendiary bombs.
Samuelsen got the idea from a book he encountered during his frequent trips to the library, where, as he puts it, "I go to the new book nonfiction section and check out any wacko thing that happens to show up there."
"That just fascinated me," he explains, "two of the pre-eminent economists stuck in this limited location trying to keep Hitler from burning down an architectural marvel."
With the help of a crash course in economics from his son, whom he describes as a "numbers man," Samuelsen realized that "the debate between Keynes and Hayek was essentially the debate between [Barack] Obama and [Mitt] Romney in the last election. At one point, Keynes said, 'In an election, you think you are voting for a candidate, but you're not; you're voting for one of a competing set of economic theories.' "
Rapier points out that neither of these plays is meant to "re-create historical events" because no one knows what really happened in these instances. "That's where the artistic license comes in: What Eric would want to talk to them about, what he would want to understand about that situation is what we are experiencing in the plays."
By playing with history, the stories come to life. "What Eric really does," Rapier elaborates, "is he finds a way to humanize these complex issues so you can decide for yourself what you feel about it. … This seemingly incomprehensible, over-your-head discussion suddenly becomes very accessible."
Between these two productions, Plan-B presents its annual radio collaboration with KUER on Dec. 3. Samuelsen has adapted his play "Fairyana" into a radio play for the occasion. The play is a comic depiction of the very dysfunctional writers of the popular children's television show "The Magical Land of Fairyana." Rapier describes it as "a radio show about happy, frolicking bunnies and froggies and the hardened cynics who write them." Samuelsen got very excited about the challenge of turning a show about children's television into a radio play. "It gave him permission to try some things a little bit differently," Rapier observes.
Female trio • The final show in Plan-B's Season of Eric is a trio of short plays focused on Mormon women, appropriately called "3." Rapier thinks it's a nice change of pace since Plan-B hasn't done a collection of short plays for a long time. Samuelsen wrote and produced "3" eight years ago for the Little Brown Theatre in Springville, but he discarded one of the plays that he disliked and created a new one. "Bar and Kell" is about two women who feel compelled to makeover another woman in their neighborhood. In "Community Standard," a woman serving on the jury of an indecency trial is forced to confront issues in her marriage. And "Duets," the new play, depicts what happens when a woman marries a gay man thinking she can change him and learns she can't. The production opens March 27.
Rapier comments that "3" reveals "what Eric does amazingly well, which is dissect his own religious culture. … What I find so intriguing about '3' is that it is written by someone from the inside who's willing to look critically at the most important component of his life, which is his faith, and how it's imperfect. … What Eric does in this play is show us that the more these women embrace and discuss their flaws, the stronger they are." Mormon or non-Mormon, "everyone in the audience will know these women."
Rapier believes that the season selections display the range in Samuelsen's work: "What I didn't want to do putting the season together is present Eric the Mormon playwright," he says. "I wanted to present Eric the playwright who happens to be Mormon. … I think it will be exciting for people to see that Eric isn't just writing about contemporary Utah." Especially in the two historical plays, "he's looking back to look forward."
Two years ago, Samuelsen retired from a 20-year teaching career at Brigham Young University because of a muscular degenerative disease called polymyositis or Ricky Bell's disease. His more open schedule and the current remission of his illness made it possible for him to complete the writing for a full season of plays.
"I don't want to say that getting a major life-threatening illness was a good career move," he says wryly, "but you could put it that way."
Regardless of the reason, Rapier is happy that Samuelsen found the time and energy to put this season together. Plan-B is looking forward to many future collaborations with this prolific and insightful Utah playwright.
'Season of Eric' begins
Plan-B Theatre Company offers a staged reading of Eric Samuelsen's translation of Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts."
When • Sunday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Sold out. Add your name to the waiting list at planbtheatre.org and show up at 3:30 p.m. at the theater to line up for extra seats.
Info • Samuelsen will participate with playwrights Matthew Ivan Bennett and Debora Threedy in a Cultural Conversation on Saturday, Aug. 31, during "The Rose Exposed."