Deborah Block knows a good script when she reads one. As the Producing Artistic Director of the South Philly-based Theatre Exile, that's her job: to ferret out and sink her teeth into delicious stories for devoted audiences. That's how Exile got to celebrating its 20th anniversary with this, its 2016-2017 season. Its opener, “Guards at the Taj” by Rajiv Joseph (Oct.20 – Nov.13) is in good hands too, as Block also takes on the role of director in a riveting violent black dramedy that moves from warmly humorous and slapstick-y to horrifically sad and eerily prescient. Block took a few minutes off during Taj's rehearsals at Exile's Studio X to discuss the process.
What did you immediately love about “Guards at the Taj” when you read it and knew what you could do with it? Or is not knowing part of the fun?
In my mind, with “Guards at the Taj”, Joseph deftly uses humor, metaphor, blood and magic to weave a tale of friendship and betrayal and the struggle between beauty and fear. It is a personal journey of mine to try to identify when I make fear-based decisions and to eliminate them. While fear has played an important part in our evolution as humans, I believe today, as a people, our choices are best when we make our decisions from strength.
So not fear?
Right. In our everyday lives, it’s hard sometime to discern the difference between prudence and fear, but in the story that Mr. Joseph tells, it's clear to see what the larger ramifications are of such decisions.
Rajiv Joseph then was quite prescient in his thinking.
“Taj” is a timely tale now, because I believe that we are living in a moment when fear mongering is prevalent. As a society, we are being encouraged to fear our neighbors and friends.”Guards” is a cautionary tale — but it is so much more. The friendship of the two guards is both beautiful and vaudevillian. The storytelling at times is gruesomely hyper-realistic and at other times humorous or filled with magic. The characters in “Guards” are so richly drawn that we can easily understand how fear can lead us down the road to making us complicit in creating the horrors of our time.
Staging such an epic story in a space the size of Studio X — what are the challenges for you and your set designer?
Our space may be on smaller side, but in some ways that makes it easier to produce the magic that needs to fill the room. Colin McIlvain (set designer) and Drew Billiau (lighting designer) have worked together many times to entirely transform Studio X so that they can harness the power of the intimacy of the space to create the full environment that this script calls for.
How were you first acquainted with Rajiv Joseph? Exile has done him before. What are his unique charms as a playwright?
I first read Joseph’s work around 2009. Then in 2011, I directed his play “Gruesome Playground Injurie” for Exile. It was such a joy to direct his script. The characters were engaging and dimensional, the storytelling was nonlinear and captivating. When I saw “Guards”, I was already open to his unique storytelling but I was entirely enthralled by the beautiful balance between gore and magic. I immediately wanted to direct this show as a lesson for our time.
The actors you are using are mostly new to the Exile team. How did you find them and how were they perfect for what seems like a mix of awestruck, fearful and resigned?
Yes, casting was tricky. The original production had older actors who helped develop the script. But the script calls for younger characters. I think the show makes more sense having younger people navigate the huge issues in front of them. I am working with two talented young actors. Anthony Mustafa Adair was Dar in “The Invisible Hand” and has thoroughly experienced an Exile process and understands what it’s like to work on our stage. Jensen Titus Lavalee is new to our stage. He recently went through the Pig Iron school and has worked a lot on clowning and physical devised theatre. The two of them together create a great duo as the characters seamlessly slip from honest emotionality to creepy slapstick.
What is the one scene in “Taj” that no audience member should blink during and why?
In terms of a not-blink moment, I am truly hoping to create images of awe that should not be missed, but I think there will also be moments when some people will want to shield their eyes. I don't want to get too specific and ruin the surprises.