Anthony J. Piccione
Since 2005, Manhattan Repertory Theatre has made a name for itself as being a home for playwrights craving to find space to bring their original work to life in the heart of New York City. Under the leadership of co-founder and Artistic Director Ken Wolf, thousands of one-act and full-length plays have been presented and produced through Manhattan Rep’s wide variety of programming, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Yet their most recent full-length production is quite notable, not just for the important issues which the play raises, but also for the fact that the production itself directly seeks to help the cause it is highlighting.
The production I’m referring to is that of Past Perfect, a new play by Rita Lewis which seeks to explore the perspectives of lesbian characters in ways that aren’t always seen in theatre. As she puts it, “I wanted to show a wider range of women in the lesbian community, as opposed to the stereotype versions we sometimes see.” She goes on to speak of the production process, “The director, Ken [Wolf], and all of the actors brought to life dynamics in the play that I had no idea existed. My favorite part of doing theatre is the collaborative process. At MRT it is supportive, inclusive, and a continuous learning experience for me.”
Originally staged before as part of Manhattan Rep’s brand new Play Production Program – a full production service offered to playwrights looking for someone else to produce their work, as opposed to the festival programming typically offered at Manhattan Rep – the show now returns again this February for one weekend, with Mr. Wolf serving as the production’s director. “We first produced Past Perfect last October and the response from the audience and the LGBT Community was amazing,” says Wolf. “The play is hysterically funny, moving and has a fantastic LGBT storyline and message.” Mr. Wolf goes on to talk about the collaborative process in the production, saying that “Rita’s play is beautifully written. The cast Gerry Glennon, Erika Yesenia and Jennifer Pierro are beyond excellent and since I have directed these actors before the creative process has been magical.”
What’s more is that Mr. Wolf says that 100% of the ticket sales for this production will benefit The Center, a community center dedicated to providing a wide variety of services and programming for the LGBTQ community. “The recent right-wing backlash against the LGBT community makes presenting this play all the more important,” says Wolf, “and it is also why we are doing this as a benefit for a LGBT organization, to affirm the importance of having the freedom to love who we love and to have equal rights and benefits.”
As Wolf points out, there is clearly a very passionate and dedicated cast of actors working on this show. When I asked each of them about their own individual experiences, all of them seemed highly enthusiastic about working on this particular piece.
Jennifer Pierro, who portrays the role of Beth, said when she first read the script, “[I]t was love at first read. The characters had a soul and a heart along with a beautiful storyline that includes love, laughter and conflict. What’s a story without a little conflict? … Playing the role of Beth Lipton has been a special one. It has taken me to a whole other level of acting … I have been acting for many years and I have to say that this script and role I hold very dear to my heart. I am so proud and honored to be a part of this production.”She went on to say that she felt “extremely empowered and blessed to be involved with such a beautiful story of love. It goes to show you that love is love. It doesn’t matter what sex, color, race or ethnic background you are. Love is love and should be expressed freely with no judgment.”
Gerry Glennon, who portrays Suzie, says “it feels amazing to be involved in such an amazing powerful piece. It sends out a positive message along with the conflicts and confusion that one deals with when it comes to true love.” Speaking of the production process, she says “Working with this cast, director and our playwright has been a fantastic journey from the very beginning … We are so connected and we know no matter what we’ve got each other’s back on and off stage and that’s a beautiful thing. We call Manhattan Rep our Happy Place, and it truly is.”
Erika Yesenia, who portrays Julie, says “this particular project has been very inspirational to work on. As an artist, it is always important to be involved in work that has the power to change people's minds about things. It's been a blessing to have taken on this role. I think the show as a whole speaks volumes about love and family.” She goes on to say that “working on this show has become a labor of love for me. From our amazing director Ken Wolf to the remarkably talented Gerry Glennon and Jennifer Pierro, it has been an absolute joy to work with these talented individuals. Being around the three of them has helped me grow so much as an artist and a person. In a climate with limited female voices, it has been very inspiring to work with two strong women.”
If these interviews are any indication, it’s clear that all of them are hopeful that this work will leave audiences this February feeling touched by the powerful story and message of the play. As Ms. Lewis says of her play, “I’m very cognizant of the audience, and appreciate that they’ve given up their precious time to see the play. I hope they feel their time was well-spent and have an immersive experience while at the theater. After they leave, I hope they’ll go home and think about the thematic material. In this case, it’s that sometimes it’s the younger generation that frees us from our self-created repressive selves.”
What’s also clear is that once this production has come and gone, Manhattan Rep will have plenty to follow, both in terms of presenting new works of playwrights, and productions that will provoke discussions of important issues, many of which through the same program where this production of Past Perfect originated. “Since we started the [Play Production] program last March, we have produced 35 short and full-length plays for playwrights from South Carolina to Moscow, Russia. It has been an incredible year of producing the best work we have ever done, and Past Perfect is at the top of the list,” says Wolf. “[It] breaks the old school model of “waiting to be saved” by some theatre company picking up your show. It now gives the power back to the playwright. Many people are actually frightened and appalled by this program for they are living in the past. Filmmakers self-produce their films now, authors self-publish their books, so why can’t playwrights self-produce their plays?”
Wolf ended the interview by stating “We have never been more excited about Manhattan Rep, and the work we are doing. We are a unique, very different type of theatre attempting to break the conventional models of play creation so that more people can bring their plays to life!
“Past Perfect” runs at Manhattan Repertory Theatre on February 24th and 25th. For more information on this production and on Manhattan Rep’s additional programming, please visit www.manhattanrep.com.
Anthony J. Piccione is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, critic, essayist, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His eclectic canon of plays have previously been presented in NYC at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the NYWinterfest, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as at regional venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theatre, the Windsor Art Center, and Windham Theatre Guild. His work as a playwright has been published at Heuer Publishing, and his columns and reviews are frequently published at On Stage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.