Basement Arts' latest production to showcase wit in 'Loving Demise'

By Gillian Jakab, For the Daily
Published November 5, 2013

Milena Westarb’s play “The Loving Demise of Lord Blackwell and His Wife” got its first taste of life at “Playfest” 2013, an annual festival of theatrically staged readings produced by the students in School of Music, Theatre & Dance Professor E.J. Westlake’s playwriting and production course. The script, plucked from Westarb’s work in MT&D Professor OyamO’s playwriting course, was workshopped and set into motion last March as a staged reading.

The Loving Demise of Lord Blackwell and His Wife

Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Friday at 11 p.m.
Studio 1 of Walgreen Drama Center

If the title of the play sounds familiar, you may be remembering the buzz it generated during “Playfest” last spring. Not only did the audience rave about it, but the show also won the Dennis McIntyre Prize for Distinction in Undergraduate Playwriting in the University’s Hopwood Awards.

This year, Westarb, an LSA junior and chemistry major who pursues her literary passion through a minor in writing, proposed her play to Basement Arts, one of the oldest student-run theater groups on campus. Matching her with Director Ellen Sachs, Basement Arts has provided the platform for “Loving Demise” to rise to a full production.

Set in Victorian England, the play tells the story of James Solomon and his inheritance of a large fortune upon the death of his uncle, Lord Blackwell. Lady Blackwell, the young, gold-digging widow, schemes desperately to secure the wealth for herself. With all the elements of drawing room farce, “Loving Demise” is a silly tale propelled by wit and slapstick that is placed against highly proper conduct and expectations of the era.

“One of the things that’s really great about this show is that we have this very serious facade — this very serious outer level of what Victorian England should be, sound, act and look like … there’s a lot of very intense formalities,” Sachs said. “But from those formalities we’re able to grow and find the jokes. There’s always something right underneath the surface bubbling and that’s where the humor comes from.”

Westarb’s script calls for numerous sets and locales. These were easily created at “Playfest” ’s staged reading through that most expedient of all production devices: the imagination. But as full-on theater, the script challenges Basement Arts’ abbreviated production period and tight budget. The solution: adaptation.

“The thing about this show, more so than any other show that I’ve worked on, has been the beauty of adaptation and how great it can be to adapt — how exciting and fun it is. Because from these adaptations we’re finding so many jokes and ways of telling the story that we hadn’t originally anticipated,” Sachs said. “We’ve retained every single character, every single story line, every single plotline. It’s still there, but what we’ve done is we’ve sort of economized the locations.”

Basement Arts’ production process has been a collaborative one in every sense. Actors have been the chief source of ideas for physical comedy and they work off each other’s creativity. Coming from varied backgrounds and levels of experience — a mix of musical theater, drama, LSA and the Residential College students — they each bring something fresh and fun to the rehearsal atmosphere. As inventive as the actors have been in finding moments where they can layer the scenes and highlight absurdity, they ground their humorous choices in historical accuracy and depth.

“Everyone in the cast has been a dramaturge. Everybody has been doing historical and social research and bringing that to the table,” Sachs said. “That’s just adding to the production and making it so much more rich.”

A lot of ingredients, locally sourced in just the right proportions, have gone into the Basement Arts’ production of “The Loving Demise of Lord Blackwell and His Wife.” Sachs divulges the key to the recipe: “the perfect balance of keeping the stakes high, but not having them weigh down on the characters, and the production, to the point of it becoming melodrama.”

A text filled with rich and descriptive language, a cast bubbling with personal flair and innovative direction will bring to life Victorian England, with mannerly exteriors giving way to lighthearted jest and drunken tomfoolery.