BWW Previews: LOOKING FOR LILITH Probes and Challenges with 'Body Awareness'
The touchstone of good drama - even good comedy - is putting rigidly defined characters together and letting them at each other.
Louisville's Looking For Lilith Theatre Company takes this tactic in "Body Awareness," a new comedy by award-winning playwright Annie Baker that received its local premiere May 8 at the University of Louisville's Thrust Theatre.
The collegiate setting is appropriate for "Body Awareness," set in a small college town that is beset by an interloper who challenges many of the locals' beliefs about themselves and their carefully-crafted existence.
Phyllis, a professor at Shirley State College, is spearheading "Body Awareness Week" on campus. Away from school, Shirley enjoys a happy home life with her partner Joyce and Joyce's son, Jared. Friction arrives in the form of Frank, a photographer with an exhibit in Body Awareness Week whose work, focusing on the naked female form, challenges the definitions of art and out-and-out pornography.
On campus, Frank upends Phyllis's meticulously organized project. As a guest in her home, Frank begins forging bonds with Joyce and Jared, causing seismic shifts in every aspect of Phyllis's existence. Ideas about sexuality, identity, image, relationships, role models and more are put to the test.
All the elements of drama are in place. The surprise comes in how funny Baker's writing is.
"We had an opportunity to read this script, and we laughed out loud the first time we read it out loud among ourselves," said director Kathi E.B. Ellis. "That was a good sign for doing the script."
Actress Teresa Willis, who plays Phyllis, praises the quality of Baker's writing for dealing with big and little issues in a way that is humorous, but also gets to the meat of things.
"One of the things we're discovering in rehearsal is you end up laughing at the things that, on reflection, you think 'Oh, should I have laughed at that?'" she said. "She is both politically correct and politically incorrect, and you end up laughing at both of those aspects."
The play is an embrace of contemporary cultural touchstones by Looking For Lilith, an ensemble devoted to creating theater that re-examines the role and place of women throughout history. LFL uses a collaborative approach in crafting original plays, drawing from its members' varied talents and disciplines, such as writing, acting, music and movement.
LFL came together in 2001 in New York City. Founding members Shannon Leigh Woolley Allison, Jennifer Talman Kepler and Trina Fischer were struggling with the small number of women being cast and the narrow scope of roles available. They joined together to form a new company that would focus on creating quality productions based on women's history, past, present and future.
LFL moved to Kentucky in 2005, continuing to create new pieces based on interviews and primary source research on such places and moments in time as World War II, Iraq and the Appalachian region of the Commonwealth. "Fabric, Flames and Fervor: Girls of the Triangle," a play based on the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 in New York City, brought the company back to the city of its origin for the centennial of the event, and the company tours other productions when it can.
Because of the collaborative nature of the company, the diversity of skills incorporated and the extensive research put into its shows, original productions typically take about two years to create, Ellis said. The company has incorporated more pre-scripted work to fill out its seasons, always put through the filter of the LFL process.
As luck would have it, Baker's "Body Awareness" ties into the company's mission of historic exploration: the character of Frank is based on Frank Cordell, a Life and Newsweek photographer and creator of "The Century Project," an exhibition of photographic portraits of nude women from birth to nearly 100 years of age. The controversial exhibit, which raises many of the questions Baker examines in the play has appeared twice on the University of Louisville's campus, mostly recently in 2010. On the question of art versus pornography, university officials came down on the side of the former. Looking For Lilith hopes to present one of Cordell's photographs in the lobby at each performance.
"Body Awareness" finds Ellis and her cast doing what is at the core of LFL's identity: putting their creative talents to work to realize a challenging, thought-provoking script by a writer who, as of last week, was a Pulitzer Prize winner for her play "The Flick."
"This script definitely tips her hand on why she would be a Pulitzer Prize winner," Willis said. "It's so layered, so brilliant. It's an amazing script. If she bettered herself from this, there's no doubt why she won."
By Annie Baker
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Presented by Looking For Lilith Theatre Company
at the UofL Thrust Theatre, 2314 S. Floyd St., May 8-17
Tickets: $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors
$12 for groups of 10 or more
Monday, May 12: Community Night. $10 tickets.
Call 502.638.2559 for reservations.