“Booth” Will Challenge Theatergoers

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(L-R) Dramaturg Maryke Barber, director Todd Ristau and playwright W. David Hancock discuss “Booth” with the audience.

(L-R) Dramaturg Maryke Barber, director Todd Ristau and playwright W. David Hancock discuss “Booth” with the audience.

by Gene Marrano

Don’t go to W. David Hancock’s brand new play “Booth” at Studio Roanoke (downtown on Campbell Avenue) expecting to see a traditional play. That is, live theater with a beginning, middle and a conclusion, all wrapped up in one neat package. Hancock, who has received two prestigious Obie awards for two other works, The Race of the Ark Tattoo and The Convention of Cartography – both more traditional works – is premiering Booth at Studio Roanoke between now and April 3, with performances every day except Monday and Tuesday.

Booth involves three people whose lives are intertwined – a seriously ill blackjack dealer, Ruth, who seems to murder people for a hobby (although the circuitous dialogue never gets that specific); Charlie, a somewhat crude, insecure seamy type who once had a relationship with Ruth; and Desiree, a “pre-op” transvestite man in a relationship with Charlie. It’s set in a booth at a Denny’s restaurant, in the middle of the night in – where else? – Las Vegas.

In two acts, set over a several year period, the three go round and round, taking verbal jabs at each other. Its not that they move the action forward that much or seem to make progress; Hancock said after the final dress rehearsal that his aim was to write Booth as though theatergoers were listening in on three people having a conversation, possibly while under the influence of something, in the middle of the night at perhaps the only place open to eat. Denny’s fits the bill perfectly in that case.

“The play is able to address the experience of life,” said Todd Ristau, who directs Booth. He called it “heightened reality.” Warning: the dialogue is often graphic. Another twist: above the set, which features a diner booth and day-glo wall paintings depicting the neon signs of Las Vegas, a video screen displays both stage directions for the actors plus some of their inner thoughts, and background on the characters.

Hancock said in a post-play discussion that using the device was like demonstrating in some ways, “I’m not a good enough writer,” to have included all of that detail in the verbiage. Ristau and Hancock also whittled down 1200 slides (which include celestial shots of the universe and some gruesome crime scenes) to about 700 before the final dress rehearsal. Hancock said Booth is a work in progress, with its official debut at Studio Roanoke over the next week. It most likely would be tweaked before it is staged again – or even during the current run in Roanoke.

Chad Runyon, an MFA candidate at Hollins, does a courageous turn on stage as Desiree, the transvestite, in full makeup, fishnet stockings and hot pants. Linsee Lewis is Ruth and Brian Turner returns to Studio Roanoke for a third time as Charlie. “I was extraordinarily intimidated the first time I read it,” said Runyon, who had praise for Hancock: “he writes for actors.”  Turner said he didn’t understand the play at first but “didn’t care,” feeling it was something he had to tackle.

Hancock had a warning for those who come to see Booth. “Its not a play about accumulation, [or designed] to tell a narrative. [There’s no] pre-determinism.”  Studio Roanoke, the small, experimental theater space founded by artistic director Kenley Smith, is the perfect venue for a play like Booth. Those who attend will be challenged.

(see studioroanoke.org for more information; tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.)