Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel… by Len Jenkin
“The smell of her hair mixes with the smell of oriental flowers perfume, a heavy scent from the abandoned garden of a Chinese scholar, overgrown with weeds, broken tea cups in the courtyard.”
A World Premiere directed by Katherine Owens
January 18 – February 2, 2014 at the Dallas City Performance Hall
From three-time Obie-winner Len Jenkin, Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel… is a play about a man on a Pilgrimage to the Sea, propelled on his journey through song, with the help of a live band, and video projecting his life time of memories and driving his hopeful quest onward.
Abraham Zobell is “a man like other men. No better, not much worse” (Jenkin 43). But, unlike other men, this one has a vital need to lay flowers on a sailor’s grave before it’s too late. Though he’s recovering from a recent heart attack, Abraham rejects the wishes of his wife and advice of his doctors, rips out his IV, and sets out on a pilgrimage to the sea. Along the way, he encounters ghosts and memories, music and moonlight, pilgrim strangers and even stranger friends.
The world premiere of Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel… ran from January 19, 2014 to February 2, 2014 with previews on January 16th and 17th at Dallas City Performance Hall. Almost exactly a year before Zobell, UMT had ventured into the Dallas City Performance Hall for the first time, to produce Penelope (a modern take on the mythological tale of four men battling for the love of Odysseus’s wife). The unconventional audience-configuration for Penelope’s regional premiere sat the audience on one half of the stage, across from the half of stage transformed into an empty swimming pool from which the suitors wooed. Because that production closed the curtains and kept everyone on stage, the premiere of Zobell (though UMT’s second production at the Dallas City Performance Hall) was the first play that left the audience in the seats provided by the Hall, allowing for the largest house for a UMT production to date. Such a large-scale production was made possible by the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, the Office of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Dallas City Performance Hall Fund.
The possibilities found while creating Zobell’s weirdly wacky and wonderful world in this space challenged UMT artists to create work in new and exciting ways. The audience of Zobell’s world premiere experienced live American Roots music from doo-wop to spirituals and even the blues, expansive use of a different playing space, and projected home-video footage of the pilgrimage to the sea (but more on that later).
Obie Award wining playwright and NYU professor, Len Jenkin’s work has resurfaced many times throughout Undermain’s production history. The first of Len Jenkin’s plays to premiere at UMT was Port Twilight in 2009. Company member and Tony Award winning designer John Arnone, was the first to suggest that Jenkin’s work and Undermain artistic director, Katherine Owens might make an excellent collaborative team.
Undermain has long fulfilled a mission of developing and producing poetic and language-driven work, and Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final was no exception. For many of the familiar faces who worked on this premiere, the rich textual landscape was part of what made working on Zobell such a rewarding experience. When asked to name his favorite thing about playing the part of Uncle Monday, company member Jonathan Brooks said “Everything. But [Jenkin’s] poetry in particular, such as ‘It’s the same old ocean, Mr. Zobell. It hasn’t changed since Noah rode it.’”
The language of the play is just one of the many elements of this production that resonated with audience members and artists alike. Throughout the journey, Zobell carries with him a handheld video. The script calls for a large screen on which the audience can watch Zobell’s black and white home-video footage of the pilgrimage from the vantage point of Zobell and his camera. However, we see only the landscape of Zobell’s world. The people he meets or remembers along the journey are never seen on screen, but appear live. Our video designer, Austin Switser, a New York based designer, graduated from CalArts where he developed thecurriculum and created his major in Video Design for Performance. His credits range across theatre, opera, music and installation pieces, including work on the Broadway premiere of Rock of Ages in 2009 and the original Sondheim on Sondheim production on Broadway in 2010. For the world premiere of Zobell, Switser created the patchy woods, billboards, suburban houses, strip malls and eventually the seaside projections that silently showed the audience Zobell’s dark and sometimes dangerous journey to the sea. The other design elements added another layer of depth and dream-like incongruity to the visual terrain of the play, thanks to John Arnone, Steve Woods and Linda Noland, with costumes designed by Giva Taylor and properties designed by Robert Winn. Bruce DuBose, Undermain executive producer, joined the Zobell team as not only sound designer, but also a musician in Sister Fleeta’s band which provided the Spirituals and doo-wop orchestration called for throughout Jenkin’s play. All of these elements together alongside the bizarre and brilliantly-enacted characters of the play, culminated in what some consider the most ambitious production in the first 30 years of Undermain.
The world premiere of Abraham Zobell’s story was profoundly moving and personally significant for audience members and Undermain artists alike. (One of the actors in this production even got a tattoo to commemorate his role!) Though each play is personal to the playwright, Len Jenkin felt a particularly strong connection to the character of Abraham Zobell. In an interview with Nancy Churnin at the Dallas Morning News, Len Jenkin elaborated saying, “I think there’s part of me in all my characters, but Zobell more than others.” In the same piece, Undermain artistic director, Katherine Owens mentioned that this play resonated deeply with her as well, describing it as “the most brilliant play about the ephemeral beauty of the world”.
With their long history of collaborating on Jenkin’s new works, it’s not uncommon for Jenkins and Owens to be on the same page. This production marked the third Owens-directed world premiere of Jenkin’s work at Undermain, and it certainly was not the last. As ever, UMT looks forward to working with Jenkin as he continues to investigate his characters’ places in space and time and their pilgrimages to the sea. Whatever’s next on the horizon, we’ve no doubt it’ll be a whale of a tale.