Colonial Players Promising Playwright Award Winner Evan Guilford-Blake… (Bud Johnson, Baltimore…)
With an award-winning play in hand, the Colonial Players turned a reading into much more — delivering a compelling study of a female artist that touched on issues such as women's independence and the nature of madness.
The Aug. 21 read-through of Evan Guilford-Blake's "An Uncommon Language" offered a look at the winning play in the players' biennial Promising Playwright Contest. Artistic director Beverly van Joolen said there were 102 applicants whose works were read before narrowing the list "to five extraordinary finalists, and the committee was unanimous in its choice of Guilford-Blake's play that really glowed."
The play was inspired by the controversy surrounding Camille Claudel's contributions to the work of Rodin, according to Guilford-Blake's website.
Set in 1906, "An Uncommon Language" tells the story of Heloise, a French artist whose passion to sculpt leads to an apprenticeship with prominent sculptor John Baptiste, who becomes her mentor and lover. Her desire to please Baptiste causes Heloise to subjugate her talent to improve his work. Baptiste admires and uses her talents, even as he demeans them to her.
Eventually as a result of her free-spirited, unconventional behavior, Heloise is confined to a mental hospital, where she is kept from practicing her art and has few visitors. One visitor is the art critic Glynn Rausch, who at their first meeting had appreciated Heloise's talents and suspected that she had contributed to improving John Baptiste's works. When he visits her at the hospital out of concern for her and to find the truth about her contributions to Baptiste, Heloise's reluctance to take credit annoys Rausch but illustrates what might have been the acceptable course followed by gifted female artists early in the 20th century.
At the reading at Chesapeake Academy in Severna Park, a cast of eight brought life to Guilford-Blake's well-drawn and multidimensional characters in dialogue that revealed the playwright's understanding of the human condition and loving veneration of art. Joe Thompson, who also served as director of this CP production, gave an excellent portrayal of Rausch, delivering his every witty line so that we could fully appreciate their insightful humor and profundity.
Sue Struve played Heloise's friend Charlotte with sensitivity, warmth and strength to bring life to this free-spirited journalist. Struve also played hospital patient Cora. As mental patient Nora, Jane Elkin became a woman longing for her young daughter, who blossomed under Heloise's tutelage in sketching. Elkin also played the role of Odile. Monica Garcia played three roles: Sister Crispus, Nell and Cordelia. Nancy Fulton played Cordelia Snow and Sister Abraham. Wendell Holland played Jamaican artist friend Ralph Palau.
Martin Thompson brought color, shading and nuance to the major role of John Baptiste, conveying the great artist's conflicting emotions, his guarded image protection and his affection for Heloise. Susannah Hurlburt created a vital charismatic Heloise, whose anguish was palpable as her free-spirited zest faded under her hospital confinement.
Although described as a reading, this CP production struck me as so thoroughly professional that it qualified as exciting theater.
In fact I found this performance so extraordinary and the material so compelling that I hope Colonial Players will mount a full production of Evan Guilford-Blake's "An Uncommon Language" to start next season.
When I compare "An Uncommon Language" with CP's season closing production of Neil LaBute's 2001 "The Shape of Things," in which the central character is a contemporary woman sculptor, Evelyn, I find her passion for creating art not as intrinsic to her nor as lyrically expressive as is Guilford-Blake's heroine, Heloise, who convinces us of her ability to create luminous living sculptures. Confronting far greater obstacles to her professional fulfillment than LaBute's Evelyn, Heloise seems more passionate in her desire to create art.
The Promising Playwright Contest is open to writers living in any state among the original 13 Colonies and promotes the work of aspiring playwrights with professionally unproduced scripts with a cast limit of ten. The winning playwright receives a $1,000 cash award, and the script is workshopped with the playwright prior to a professional reading.
CP Vice President Tom Stuckey recalled: "The cast had two read-throughs on Sunday and Wednesday before playwright Guilford-Blake and wife Roxana arrived on Thursday. On Saturday the cast did another reading with the playwright attending and offering a few comments."
At Chesapeake Academy the cast did another read through before the Sunday 2 p.m. performance. Stuckey added, "From their comments the playwright and his wife were very impressed with Colonial Players and with what they saw here."
Guilford-Blake's "An Uncommon Language" has received recognition elsewhere, including in 2008 winning the prestigious Eamon Keane Full Length Play Competition in County Kerry, Ireland, as well as winning competitions in 2009 and 2010.