INTERVIEW: Playwright Jami Brandli and Director Jennifer Decker Give BroadwayWorld a Sneak-Peek to the World Premiere of O: A RHAPSODY IN DIVORCE

This fantastic new show based on the Greek epic "The Odyssey" opens this weekend and will run for three weekends; be sure to buy your tickets now!

By: Jan. 18, 2024
INTERVIEW: Playwright Jami Brandli and Director Jennifer Decker Give BroadwayWorld a Sneak-Peek to the World Premiere of O: A RHAPSODY IN DIVORCE
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New play “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce” is opening this weekend at Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company. The production is a new comedic and dramatic take on the classic Greek epic “The Odyssey” where we follow O–a childless female neurobiologist in her 40’s–as she is blindsided by her husband who wants a divorce as well as the house in which they both lived in together. With this life-changing event, O finds herself on an adventure of her own as she pushes herself out of her comfort zone, goes out into the world, and embarks on a couch-hopping odyssey. As O hops from one couch to the next, audiences will be informed about the science behind love and heartbreak while O discovers unconventional and magical ways to find her way back toward a "new home."

BroadwayWorld got the chance to speak with playwright Jami Brandli and director Jennifer Decker, who gave us a sneak peek of how the show came to be, how rehearsals have been going, the goals of this production, and what we can look forward to in “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”!

Firstly, can you each tell us what your role is for “O: A Rhapsody In Divorce”?

Jami Brandli: I am Jami Brandli, and I am the playwright of “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”!

Jennifer Decker: I'm Jennifer Decker, and I'm the director of the show as well as the producer and artistic director of Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company.

Jami, I’d love to chat with you first. How long have you been playwriting? What other works have you done?

Brandli: I've been a playwright for the last 20 years now. I have had lots of works, but I would say that the most notable works that I have are “Technicolor Life”–which was produced as part of the National Women's Voices Theatre Festival in DC in 2015– and my play “BLISS (Or Emily Post is Dead!)”, which is actually in the same world as “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”. I take Greek myths and then I modernize them. “BLISS (Or Emily Post is Dead!)” is probably one of my most famous plays; it was on the Kilroys’ List, and it had a rolling world premiere with three theaters. Most recently, my play “The Magician’s Sister” won the 2023 Jane Chambers Playwrighting Award and the 2023 Stanley Drama Award. Now, I have “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”, which is going to be premiering here at Mildred’s Umbrella–which I'm super excited about– and then it's going to have another premiere in Los Angeles with Jessica Hanna’s theater, Outside in Theatre.

Can you tell us a little about the “O: A Rhapsody In Divorce”. What is the play’s story?

INTERVIEW: Playwright Jami Brandli and Director Jennifer Decker Give BroadwayWorld a Sneak-Peek to the World Premiere of O: A RHAPSODY IN DIVORCE
(From Left to Right) Arianna Bermudez and Sammi Sicinski
in “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”
with Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
Photo by: Ryan Kelly

Brandli: It follows a woman in her 40s, who finds herself on the brink of divorce. Her husband will not leave the house, so she goes on a couch-hopping odyssey all over town, looking for her new home (if you will). It is based on part of my experience, but it is also based on women that I knew at that time–over five years ago–who were also going through this major change in their life where their partner or their husband didn't want to be married anymore. So, they found themselves going on this epic journey. This play aligns with what I call “My Greek Cycle Plays” with “BLISS (Or Emily Post is Dead!)”. I take the Odysseus myth, and I flip it and tell it from a woman's point of view.

How did you both connect to make this show come to life with Mildred’s Umbrella? What drew you to this show, Jennifer?

Decker: I first found out about Jami because of an actor that was here, Bernardo Cubría. He used to be in Houston, and he moved a couple of places first, but he landed in L.A.

Brandli: We are both a part of the Playwrights Union as well as a writers group with the Road Theatre Company, and we became fast friends.  He read “BLISS”, and he said, that is amazing! I'm going to send it to Jennifer Decker, and I was like, great!

Decker: Unfortunately, he was sending it to an old e-mail address, and it was in my spam. I was looking for something, found the email, and then I asked Bernardo if it was real! Once I read the play, I realized that I loved it so much, but when I contacted her, she sent me this one. This play is newer, and it hasn't been done on stage; it has only been performed as a reading.

So, what I'm finding is that the story is a reclaiming. If you know “The Odyssey”, you'll see the little signposts and the parallel scenes. It's funny, it's sad, and it moves really fast.

We're working out some bugs with the physical aspect of it because it hasn't been done. It's interesting to do that without the playwright in the room, but we have contact with her, so I can ask when I need to. The show is really one smooth move. It is a journey with no scene breaks; it just goes from one thing to the next. So, what I've been trying to do is find the pace because there are moments that need to be handled more gently than others, and there are moments that need to slow down, so it is like a roller coaster. The story is definitely “The Odyssey”, but I also see just a brand-new story at the same time.

Brandli: The lead is not based on me, and I purposely made the lead a neurobiologist so we're going to learn about the science of love, the brain, and heartbreak. Therefore, there is discussion on when you go through a massive life-changing event where you lose what you thought was going to be your life, how do you rewire your brain to move forward and find self-love? Her finding self-love is very much a journey, and she goes through all the stages. She tries to use her abilities and her knowledge as a neurobiologist to intellectualize or find a scientific reason for why she's feeling the way she is, and along the way, she meets the other people who are trying to tell her that she has to feel it now.

INTERVIEW: Playwright Jami Brandli and Director Jennifer Decker Give BroadwayWorld a Sneak-Peek to the World Premiere of O: A RHAPSODY IN DIVORCE
(From Left to Right) Arianna BermudezSammi Sicinski,
Pamela Garcia Langton, and Mayra Monsavais
in “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”
with Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
Photo by: Ryan Kelly  

Decker: It is a universal story because most people on this planet will go through heartbreak at some point in life. To be crushed by that disappointment that a love didn't work out is life-changing, and how do we move forward from that? It is not just a woman's story; I think it's a very much a universal story with a complicated female hero lead and a cast of five with four of them women.

Jami, is there a reason why you have an affinity for these Greek tales and changing them up for modern audiences?

Brandli: Yes! So, my initial spark of doing that was with “BLISS” where I take Cassandra, Clytemnestra, Antigone, and Medea, and I wanted to show that they were not crazy, right? Their playwrights have written these women as if they are crazy, but I believe they are justified in their actions during pretty extraordinary circumstances. So, I wanted to modernize that and not make them look like they're crazy but also give them a basis for their actions. In “BLISS”, not every one of them does the same thing; some of them are able to break the cycle, if you will. I have another play called “Visiting Hours”, where I take on the Persephone myth, and I place it in a psychiatric ward.

INTERVIEW: Playwright Jami Brandli and Director Jennifer Decker Give BroadwayWorld a Sneak-Peek to the World Premiere of O: A RHAPSODY IN DIVORCE
(From Left to Right) Pamela Garcia Langton, Mayra Monsavais,
and Arianna Bermudez Supporting 
Sammi Sicinski (in Front) as "O"
in “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”
with Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
Photo by: Ryan Kelly  

I feel like in most– if not all of the Greek stories– it's the male who goes on a journey and the woman stays at home, waiting for her man to come back. That is not how it works today, and I don't think that's always been the case. However, I wanted to show that: hey, this woman is going to go on this journey, and it's a different kind of journey, but it's still an epic Odyssean-like journey where there are couch hops. Our protagonist faces trials and tribulations. No matter what happens, she still keeps going towards whatever this new version of home is going to be for her on the other side of a divorce; divorce is listed as one of the top five traumatic events that can happen to a person right after death and the burning of a house. Although this is the reality, this play is a comedy.

Decker: She goes through all the stages of grief in the play. They may be not exactly in the order that they always are in, but she goes back and forth through all of them, and it's really funny.

As the producer for Mildred’s Umbrella, I have a particular attraction to retellings of old tales, too, whether it's Greek plays or Shakespeare. When I'm teaching my literature classes at Houston Community College, I often incorporate that because the students love to relate to older plays and understand why we are reading them and why they are still relevant. You just have to translate it for modern people sometimes for them to see the relatable story in it.

There was a playwright called Katharine Sherman that we did Cassandra with several years ago. She had just submitted it to the Alley Theatre, and my literary manager was working there as an intern. She was like, hey: you got to see this play. So, we contacted her and we did that play. Then, she wrote one for us that we did in 2016 called “doll face”. It was based on Medusa, but it was from her point of view. We got a Houston Press Award for that one. Interestingly enough, the actress playing one of the women in the Greek chorus of “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce” was in both of those productions.

Jennifer: as the director of the show, where is your team in the rehearsal process? What does a typical day of rehearsal look like?

Decker: We started the process over the holidays. We didn't have the space yet, so we had around 2 weeks where we were just doing scene work and working on the characters. Then, we got into the space right after New Year’s Day, and we really had to buckle down because the play moves constantly, and the actors have to move things around for the scene changes to be in a new location. I've simplified it as much as possible; that is the beauty of this play. This play could be done on a big budget or a small budget. So, there's some stuff that happens in the script that we had to be creative about because we just didn't have the resources. So, we're using technical elements instead of moving so much furniture. It is coming together!

Over the holidays, our actors could work a little bit more on their lines and such during the day since they did not have to attend as much to their other jobs. Last week, we did a run-through for the first time of the whole thing with all of them trying to remember what to do, not just their lines. So, they constantly have to be moving and acting.

A couple of them are teachers, so they went back to school last week, and a couple of them have day jobs where they work in an office or something, so they were working the whole time. However, that first run went really well! There were some rough spots, and we worked from 6:00 pm to 10:00 PM to get it right, but we now have the play where it is an hour and 40 minutes. That is a good place to be, especially since it includes stopping and starting for lines and things like that. In the end, it should be around 90 minutes long. Later last week, we started adding the technical elements, and we ran the show a couple of times over the weekend (Sunday we had off because we were all exhausted). Dress rehearsals started this week.

I wasn't sure until our first run if we were going to be near our goal time, but it is magic! The cast is amazing, and they have been troopers as we worked through the holidays. Also, this is a new play, which means no one's done it until we're doing it. So, we had to work out and be creative with things that our budget can't handle, such as props popping out of nowhere.

In this production, there is choreography, there's some dancing, there's a fight scene… actually, two of our actors in the chorus have extensive tap dancing experience, and the main actress knows enough to have picked it up really fast, so that is fun! There's a lot of elements in it, and I was not sure what was going to happen with this production, but everybody came together and the show is in a great place.

I believe we're (Mildred’s Umbrella) one of those “pull-you-up-by-the-bootstraps companies” anyway because our budget is maybe a 10th of everyone else that looks like us. So, I work as most of the staff on a volunteer basis because I want to be able to pay all the artists a decent amount of money for their work. I teach full-time, so that's how I fund that, but that's why we're not doing more shows. We were doing four a year, and I felt like I was losing my mind! So, we now do two a year, with one show being smaller (like a reading series) and one being a larger play so our budget can handle it. “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce” is our big win this year!

Both of you keep mentioning some magic, so are there any other technical elements in the show that we can look forward to?

Decker: I mean, it's just lights and sound, but that's all the smoke and mirrors that I feel you need to put in. The play itself is super theatrical. Other than the actress who is playing O, everybody is playing many, many roles, and they’re constantly moving to a new character and scene.

Brandli: Jessica Hanna–who's directing the Los Angeles production–will be in Houston, so it will be interesting to see what Jessica sees and what Jessica and Jennifer talk about after because–as Jennifer said– the first production always sets up this beta. So, Jennifer, I am so appreciative that you're taking a risk because that will only help the next production.

Plus, after seeing this production as the playwright, I can revise as needed, make this or that tighter, or work on the clarity of any section. The play is a living thing. As far as I'm concerned, a play is a living thing until the playwright dies, even after it's published. I still have the right to change something if I think I can make it better. So, this is going to be a really fascinating and educational experience, as well. I'm really looking forward to being there. We have a talkback Saturday night of opening weekend with Jennifer, me, and probably the cast.

INTERVIEW: Playwright Jami Brandli and Director Jennifer Decker Give BroadwayWorld a Sneak-Peek to the World Premiere of O: A RHAPSODY IN DIVORCE
Sammi Sicinski Embarks on a Journey as "O"
in “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”
with Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
Photo by: Ryan Kelly  

One thing I am looking forward to is that there is one piece of the set that is near and dear to my heart, which is the bed. It is also the car, the couch…whatever it needs to be! I am not sure what it is going to look like, so I cannot wait to be surprised by that.

Decker: If I had my way, it would be more magnificent, but since it changes into so many things, audiences will have to use their imagination because it looks like a couch most of the time. However, we are doing as much as we can to make it change. We’re actually calling it “The Transformer”. Our set designer made it; it was on wheels but they had to lock so people could sit on it, so now it's on slides.

Brandli: For me–and I told this to Jennifer– I was like, I don't care if it's the most stripped-down version of the play as long as the acting and the heart and the comedy is there. I'll watch somebody look at a chair and be like, “Hey, look at that magnificent dining table!” and I'll suspend my disbelief; I'm there with them.

What are both of your favorite parts to watch in the production?

Brandli: I have two moments that are my favorite, and I feel that I know what will be everyone else’s favorite. For me, it’s the lectures and the end.

Decker: I think my favorite is the scene where she finally realizes what she needs to move on from him. I'm working with these actors as a director, and I think that's the scene we got the most out of the script. However, when I read the play before I started working on it, I don't know if I could pick out a favorite scene. It was a whole piece to me, but once I started interacting with it as a director, that became my favorite scene, and it was just because of the work we did and what we were able to discover about their relationship just from that conversation.

Brandli: I will tell you what many people tell me is their favorite scene, and it's called the story circle scene.

Decker: Yes, that is probably the funniest scene in the show! It is just so outrageous, and the audience is going to love that scene.

To finish us off here, when and where can we see “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”?

It is at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios; it's our old space where we used to live, but now it's 4th Wall Theatre space; they are letting us use it. It’s 1824 Spring St #101, Houston, TX 77007. Our opening is on Friday, January 19th, and it is at 8:00 pm on Friday and Saturday  and at 3:00 PM on Sunday for three weekends. We're going to do a talkback on Saturday the 20th right after the show, and the show is going to run 90 minutes!

The show opens this Friday, January 19th and only runs through February 3rd; you do not want to miss this one-of-a-kind show! There will be a talkback after the show with the playwright on Saturday, January 20th. Additionally, there will also be Burlesque show MILDRED'S AFTER DARK at 10pm (lasting 1 hour) on Saturday, January 27; you can get $5 off if you also see “O: A Rhapsody in Divorce”. Buy your tickets now here!


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