The Long and Fruitful Friendship: Amy Freed and SCR


by 
John Glore
 | Feb 27, 2018
Amy Freed

​Playwright Amy Freed.

Since South Coast Repertory began its relationship with Amy Freed in 1996, seven of her plays have appeared at SCR in productions or public staged readings. In them, her comedy of the outrageous has zeroed in on people behaving badly—or in some cases, humans behaving all to humanly—in first century Rome, England of both the Elizabethan and Restoration eras, Puritan America and even the domestic realm of a modern-day American family. But in every case she has had her eye on what’s happening in the world today. Here’s an overview of Freed’s plays to have appeared at SCR.


Freedomland

Annie LaRussa, Peter Michael Goetz and Karen Kondazian in SCR's 1997 production of Freedomland.

Freedomland
(SCR commission, world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage, 1997)

The Underfinger family, led by patriarch Noah, is falling apart at the psychological seams. Daughter Polly can’t finish her dissertation on “the secret lives of the women of the Iliad,” after years of trying. Her sister, Sig, has cornered the market on sad clown paintings. Their brother, Seth, is a survivalist with violent tendencies. When they all come home to the family farmhouse in upstate New York, lugging their neurotic baggage with them, things don’t go well. But the Underfingers find their way to a moment of respite in reminiscing about the family’s last happy day, which came many years earlier on a visit to the now-shuttered amusement park, Freedomland—the day before Mom committed the kids into Noah’s incapable hands and left for good.

In an interview about the play, Freed spoke of growing up “among a generation of lost fathers profoundly affected by the early 1970s, when families were dropping like flies. They were hit by the raised consciousness of the ’60s, the Vietnam War, drugs, the quest for complete self-gratification. The lightning that strikes this family has to do with a cultural shift. They haven’t found a language for their belief and self-definition... They’re trying to live in an age of unbelief, when they’re all really believers by nature.”

A CurtainUp review of the play’s off-Broadway production said, “Freed, like John Guare, is an inspired wordsmith with a gift for surreal touches in situations grounded in familiar and real territory.” The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

BeardAvon

​​Don Took, Douglas Weston and Robert Curtis Brown in SCR's 2001 production of The Beard of Avon.

The Beard of Avon
(SCR commission, world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage, 2001)

Only Amy Freed could write a wildly funny romp about the centuries-long scholarly controversy surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. With tongue in cheek, she proposes that the plays were actually written by an assortment of Shakespearean contemporaries (including Queen Elizabeth herself), whose high station forbade them from taking credit for their writing, but whose egos demanded that their plays be staged. The hapless (and not untalented) actor/poet, Will Shakspere, agrees to serve as their front after falling under the sway of the licentious Earl of Oxford.

A New York Times review said, “What is especially satisfying about The Beard of Avon is that it is not only shrewd and ambitious but also modest in its authorial tone. In several sly instances, Ms. Freed suggests how recurrent themes in Shakespeare—mistaken identity, for example—might have been inspired by real-life occurrences. Equally cagy is her suggestion that Shakespeare’s understanding of human relations is informed by a sexual orientation that is open to all possibilities. These are big ideas, but they aren’t trumpeted and you don’t have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to appreciate them. Indeed, like the rest of ‘Beard,’ they are delivered with a genuine awe and delight at the genius in the 37 plays, whoever is responsible.”

After its SCR premiere, the play went on to numerous productions at major theatres nationwide.

safe-in-hell

Simon Billig, center, and the cast in SCR's 2004 production of Safe in Hell.

Safe in Hell
(SCR commission, world premiere on the Segerstrom Stage, 2004)

Using the 17th-century Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, as its protagonist, the play satirizes the religious zeal that led to the Salem witch trials, suggesting that the insecure Cotton’s fraught relationship with his powerful preacher father, Increase Mather, contributed to his witch-hunting mania. Freed also has fun with the lust lurking beneath Cotton’s God-fearing demeanor. “Cotton drew his power from fear,” said Freed in an NPR interview. “His sermons were about devils and Satan and the presence of hell... [He] is driven enormously by his desire to have a breakthrough to the spiritual world that has eluded him so far. And the avenue that is presented to him is this connection with these possessed girls, who contain all this crazy sexual energy and bottled up rage and all these things he can’t touch in himself.”

Counterpointing Cotton’s fire-and-brimstone obsession is the feel-good vibe of Reverend Doakes, a proto-New Age preacher who wants to help his “red brothers” find Jesus. “He’s my reproach,” Freed explained on NPR, “to what I see as the failures of the left in this country. He’s a guy who is all for the softness and pleasure and ease of God, a well-meaning fellow...without any sense of the sacrifices of free speech or a free society.”

The LA Times review of SCR’s production said, “The play is rife with references to contemporary American culture. Most of these produce audible guffaws...But the humor isn’t mindless; Freed clearly wants her audience to think about parallels with events in our own times.”

Restoration-Comedy

Sussanah Rogers, Timothy Landfield, Sarah Rafferty, Nike Doukas and John-David Keller in the 2005 NewSCRipts reading of Restoration Comedy.

Restoration Comedy
(NewSCRipts reading, 2005)

Freed dusts off two obscure comedies from Restoration England to create her own mash-up, having fun with such comedic staples as disguise and sexual dalliance, while lacing the proceedings with liberal doses of anachronism. Freed’s writerly act of “restoration” points up the ways in which the foolishness inspired by love and lust hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

In a prologue, the play’s lead character confesses to the audience that the sole reason for presenting Restoration Comedy is simple: “So we can wear the clothes!” —and in truth, Freed is mostly interested in having fun with the extravagance of the characters and language; the plot is secondary, but a Variety review of the play’s Seattle Repertory Theatre premiere does a good job of summarizing it: “Unfaithful husband Loveless, who has been roaming the world on a hedonistic binge, learns of his wife’s death in London and decides it’s now safe to return to his stomping grounds. However, his wife, Amanda, turns out to be not the least bit dead, and she promptly tries to woo back her prodigal husband by learning the ‘art of lewdness.’ In the first act, she succeeds. In the second, Loveless backslides and Amanda, too, is tempted to stray. Freed knows well that, as one character puts it, words can be ‘as intoxicating as flesh,’ and the repartee between Loveless and Amanda is as energetic and tantalizing as their sex play.”

nero-title-card

SCR's 2009 production of You, Nero.

You, Nero
(SCR commission, world premiere on the Julianne Argyros Stage, 2009)

Once again Freed takes a playwright as her protagonist—in this case a fictional one named Scribonius, who is commissioned by the maniacal emperor Nero to write his life story and help him repair his reputation among the people of Rome. Hanging over the playwright’s head at all times is the prospect of a painful death should he fail to satisfy Nero’s every whim. Scribonius also has to contend with Nero’s mother, Agrippina, and new wife, Poppaea, both of whom want him to center his play on them, thereby serving their lust for power and their need for survival in the cut-throat world of Nero’s Rome. When Scribonius falters, Nero finally takes matters into his own hands by creating an autobiographical one-man show, which he performs at the climax of the play; it culminates in a pyrotechnical display that—legends of fiddling aside—sparks the city-consuming conflagration for which Nero is now most famous.

You, Nero may deal in ancient history, but its awareness of what’s happening in America today—politically, socially and pop-culturally—drives the play to its outrageous finale. “After I started working on it,” Freed has said, “the parallels were obvious: Two civilizations in decline and crumbling under the weight of their own decadence.”

She added, “The button in me that got pushed by writing this was a great sadness and rage that so much is falling apart... All the bonds of fellowship and society are weakening, and I really don’t know if human beings can survive with nothing but On Demand entertainment.” That Freed’s sadness and rage spurred a riotously funny comedy is par for the course for this playwright.

Monster

​Susannah Rogers, Annie Abrams, Aubrey Deeker and Danny Scheie in SCR's 2017 production of The Monster Builder

The Monster Builder
(Pacific Playwrights Festival Reading, 2010, titled Right to the Top)

The plot of Freed’s satirical comedy, The Monster Builder, hinges on the fate of a decaying boathouse, hidden away in a city park. The city planners are of a mind to tear the old boathouse down, but Dieter and Rita, a husband-and-wife architect team with their own little boutique firm, have put forward a proposal to preserve it. They have in mind a respectful, restorative design that will retain all the vernacular charm and simple serenity of the original, while fortifying it and reclaiming it as a gathering place for the community.

Freed gives vent to her own dismay at some of the trends in contemporary architecture, and her sense that our cities are being despoiled by the work of today’s starchitects. “I try to bring these concerns into a language that’s theatrical, that’s fun, that’s a little outrageous,” said Freed, “to provoke discussion and reaction.” The reactions the play provokes are likely to range from hilarity to a kind of delighted horror.

Adapted from dramaturgical material and program notes for Freed’s The Monster Builder (2017).

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