A Guest Post from Kathe Koja:
An industrial art festival, throngs of hipsters, and bands, and Sailor Jerry rum…. And upstairs there was a Victorian townhouse, lovingly designed and painstakingly painted, hung about with deep red curtains, decorated with lavish lace and plump floor pillows and risque art. There was wine, and chocolates; there were flowers. There were curious glances as the curious audience—whose knowledge of Under the Poppy ranged from multiple devoted readings to “What’s this all about?”—made its way past the Poppy booth into the playing space. And then the door closed behind them, and the show began.
“The company we keep
May keep us from our sleep
And keep us toss-and-turning till the morning …”
It was a teaser show for the larger, immersive Under the Poppy experience to come. Called “The Company We Keep,” it starred Jordan Whalen as the debonair Istvan, abetted by lovelorn Lily the maidservant (Annabelle Young), who hopes that the handsome stranger might somehow take her away from all this ….The conceit of the show was the townhouse as a paying venue, Istvan playing his way back to Rupert and the Poppy, Istvan invited by a fine milord with an eye for a louche young man – but instead bursting headlong into the performance space, pursued by an unseen and angry Madame and her two-fisted butler, before he can perform.
So Istvan decides to play a show instead for the assembled: a show that attempts to locate desire, a show that asks “Who here knows of love?” – its scent, its sweat, its absence, its imperative. In this he is aided by his puppet Marco, popped out from a battered traveling trunk; Marco created by artist and puppeteer Megan Harris, who studied in Detroit and in Prague, who carved and created Marco by hand.
“So on the road we go, to play our little show
In company as sweet as it is fleeting—”
The performances were Saturday and Sunday only, six shows in all, see them now or see them never. Some people saw one show and came back for a second. Some were disappointed, several very loudly, to get there too late. One man arrived just as the door to the space was locked; he said he felt it locking as his hand touched the knob.
Between performances, Lily and her skeptical maidservant friend (Erin Hildebrandt) roamed through the crowds, tricked out in low-cut Victorian finery; this was much appreciated, as was the presence of the lovely emcee (Yana Levovna), who plied patrons with that wine and those chocolates, and answered their questions insofar as mystery allowed. My co-producer, Julanne Jacobs, and I made sure that there were clean wineglasses and wafting incense and hey, how many people are already in line, can we fit them all in? They were, we could, and we did.
“For where the Poppy grows is where we’ll play our shows
For journeys always end in lovers meeting.”
Julanne asked me, others asked me, was I nervous, as a first-time playwright, to see my characters come fully to life this way? Yes, a little, but no not really: I’d been to rehearsal, I knew what the actors could do. But the thrill … That was stronger than I had anticipated, so strong in fact that I couldn’t even watch the first day’s performances; I was too elated, too over the top, to go into that space and shut the door. The image in the mind’s eye becomes the story, the story in the mind becomes the novel on the page, remade anew by every reader. But this was making the story anew, again, for me: a gift of the talents of others, the actors, Julanne, Megan, Joe Stacey who wrote a song specifically for the production … It was a thrill I want to have again and again.
“For all the world loves a lover …”
And then Lily cries out that oh, no, Madame and the butler are back! and Istvan grabs up Marco and off he goes, out the door and back to the road that leads to the full-on show of the Poppy, back into the mind’s eye until he, and Rupert, and Decca, and the whole crew at the brothel, resurface again in the next performance. We shall hope to see you there, mesdames et messieurs, on the road of desire.
Jordan Whalen as Istvan, photo by Rick Lieder
Group photo by John Froelich for Metromix