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SLAC’s ‘Cabbies’ project took the long road home

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Like one of those Hollywood epics in the 1950s and '60s, Salt Lake Acting Company's new 10-play collection — "Cabbies, Cowboys and the Tree of the Weeping Virgin" — has been nearly two years in the making.

It may not be as spectacular as "Ben-Hur" or "Spartacus" (this is, after all, live theater in a fairly intimate setting), but this world-premiere event — timed to coincide with the 2002 Winter Games — is designed specifically to give next month's visitors brief insights into Salt Lake City's ethnic and religious diversity.

Co-producer Nancy Borgenicht and SLAC dramaturge Mike Dorrell began working on the project two years ago; it's taken this long to negotiate the commissions and work out the logistics. "There were a lot of logistics," said Borgenicht.

The show was initially conceived as an umbrella for 15 short original plays by Utah writers, but Borgenicht and her team eventually pared this down to 10 plays being staged, but with all 15 scripts being published in a commemorative book, which will be given free to all ticketholders.

The published scripts, according to Borgenicht, will be each writer's original, unedited works. The 10 plays that theatergoers see on stage have been reworked considerably in order to keep them within a seven- to 13-minute time frame.

'We were brutal," said Borgenicht of the editing process. "But doing every one of the plays as they were originally written would have meant rotating them on different nights in different spaces. This is a good compromise."

Dorrell noted that one of the most exciting parts of working with the project is that not all of the authors are playwrights. A couple of them are more well-known as novelists. One of the writers, Mary Dickson, who is creative director at KUED/Ch. 7, began her writing career as a journalist at the Deseret News. Jeff Metcalf is a freelance columnist.

There are some prominent playwrights with strong Utah connections as well, however — notably Julie Jensen, who is now "playwright-in-residence" at SLAC, and David Kranes, who has had several plays premiere at SLAC.

Dorrell himself is involved in at least three aspects of the "Cabbies" project — as dramaturge, as one of the writers (he wrote the evening's only "period" piece, "The Dome") and as a director (two of the pieces — Charlotte McQuinn Freeman's "The Stigmata Incident" and Mary Dickson's "Eager").

Borgenicht and Dorrell said all 10 plays selected for production were chosen to reflect a wide range of interests — but all have some connection to Utah and the West.

At least two of the plays — Jensen's "Water Lilies" and novelist Ron Carlson's "The Gold Lunch" — have Olympics-related themes. The former focuses on two sisters who are feuding over water-ballet competition; the latter treats lunching with an ex-spouse as an Olympic event.

"We even got one submission from J.T. Rogers, a 'wannabe' Utah writer — so we adopted him," said Borgenicht.

Rogers doesn't live in Utah (although SLAC is staging the world premiere of his new full-length piece, "Seeing the Elephant," in April). The piece he submitted was based on an incident he had while visiting Temple Square. This will be among the five plays being published but not staged.

Not surprisingly, Salt Lake Acting Company's building has been a beehive of activity in recent weeks, with all 10 plays being rehearsed in various rooms. SLAC's resident scenery designer, Keven Myhre (who is also directing "Water Lilies"), is designing a set that will accommodate all of them.

Colleen Baum, seen most recently in Plan-B's "The Laramie Project" and The Emily Company's "Pride's Crossing," is the featured performer in "The Dome," which Mike Dorrell, a Welsh immigrant to Utah, wrote after researching his wife's ancestral history.

Dorrell noted that his wife's great-grandmother joined the LDS Church in Wales and was among the early pioneers who crossed the Atlantic to move here. While the woman in the play is more or less a composite of women from that era, "it's based essentially on her and comes out of that milieu. The Welsh were particularly strong among the early converts here. Most of the unmarried women became school teachers or midwives."

Peg, the character played by Baum, is a midwife. Her monologue — which will be the final play of the evening — is centered around an architect who promises to design a domed churchhouse in what eventually evolved into Salt Lake City's historic Marmalade Hill district.

The building that inspired Dorrell's play is Salt Lake Acting Company's current home — an old church ward house built in 1890. Dorrell explained that his play's references to the building are fictional but the central character's historical background is based on actual people.

Baum said the piece that Dorrell wrote "reminds me of my own grandmother. A lot of the others involved in the project have said that Peg reminds them of their ancestors, too — of who they were and what they went through to get here.

"Peg is a reminder of why we have such a special state. She's realist and very independent, but she also has a wicked — but loving — sense of Irish humor. This was one of the first scripts I read, and it was the only one I really wanted to do."

For Geoff Hansen, a local actor who's performed in many SLAC plays in years past, the "Cabbies" adventure has been like Old Home Week. Many of the actors and directors have worked at SLAC off an on during the past several years. "We get in the Green Room and start talking over old times, and we don't want to leave," Hansen said.

He plays the central character in "The Gold Lunch," vying for a gold medal during lunch with his ex-wife.

"This is a wonderful challenge for both the writer and the actor, and when it's done well, it's a real treat for the audience," said Hansen. "I'm happy to be part of this kind of theater. The biggest challenge for me is to make this 'lunching competition' look real. It's about what men and women do when they play games with each other, although they both have a serious determination to win. It's an interesting ride for an actor."

One of the pieces that Borgenicht is directing is David Lee's "Incident at Thompson's Sough," a narrative poem set in a rural Utah community. "He gave his permission to do what we wanted with it," Borgenicht said.

So instead of having just one person recite the narrative, she's having two actors — Brenda Sue Cowley and Michael Byron Boswell —perform all 14 characters in the poem. "We've given them all a voice," she said.

In addition to Myhre, the design team for all 10 plays includes costumer designer Brenda Van Der Wiel (who just completed costuming "La Bete" for the Babcock Theatre), sound designer Cynthia Kehr, lighting designer Steve Terry and choreographer Cynthia Fleming.

Van Der Wiel's most complicated costume may be Donald Glover's larger-than-life-size trout suit, which he dons during David Kranes' "Catch and Release."

E-mail: ivan@desnews.com