Last November, the annual Young Playwrights Festival in New York debuted Nursery by Julia Jarcho’03-’04, a play hailed in The New York Times as “Terrific stuff, stunning from a teenage writer.” Jarcho slides into the director’s chair as well for her latest production, The Highwayman, which will open today in the Adams Kronauer Space. The Highwayman is inspired by the Alfred Noyes poem of the same name published in 1907. (Jarcho notes that her play is inspired by, not adapted from, the poem, as she has made no move to use the poem legally.)
Jarcho discovered the poem “The Highwayman” through her grandmother, who had won an award as a girl in Puerto Rico for reciting the text. Deciding that it would work well as a theater piece, Jarcho set to work. “I don’t consider the play to be a version of the story. It’s much more a response than an attempt to render it,” the playwright explains. The poem focuses on Bess, a beautiful girl who tries to save the life of her beloved highwayman by shooting herself, thereby warning him of an ambush. In Jarcho’s version, however, Bess is the center of what she describes as “a complex of experiences” that include the story of the highwayman. She exists both in the turn-of-the-century setting of “The Highwayman” and in the modern world with her boyfriend (of sorts), Matt. The play centers on “her participation in a story [“The Highwayman”] that may or may not exist independently of her,” says Jarcho, and “the guest characters are like a chorus from this other world.” Shrugging as she struggles to summarize the experimental and abstract work, she jokes, “It’s hard to talk about it without sounding a little pretentious and silly.”
The Highwayman came to fruition last summer when Jarcho participated in the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., where she was a writer-in-residence. “It sounds silly to say that I wrote the play in a month, but that’s all I had to do [at the conference].” Jarcho is a veteran downtown New York theater actress, and that world—where playwrights direct their own works and ask friends, including non-actors, to play roles—contributed to “my sensibility—if I have one,” she says.
Eschewing the customary audition process, Jarcho chose some actors whom she has used before and some theatrical novices. Sarah E. Porter ’03, who plays Bess, has been in two other Jarcho productions, and when the director asked her to come along for a third ride, says Porter, “I was thrilled. Julia’s writing is so smart. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s poetry set to motion.” Lisa C. Lightbody ’03 has no theatrical experience, but Jarcho says, “I like her presence,” so Lightbody was invited to join the cast.
The familiarity of many of the cast members makes for some strange and hilarious moments during rehearsal. When Ezekiel W. “Zeke” Reich ’03, the eponymous Highwayman and a friend of Jarcho’s since childhood, messes up a line in a particularly odd way, he and Jarcho burst out laughing. After about thirty seconds, the rest of the cast looks at each other mystified. Finally, one actor admits “I don’t get it” and the rest of the casts nods in agreement. Later, Reich says that its not unusual for he and Jarcho to be the only two laughing. He says, “It comes from being someone who has known her for ages and through a thousand different forms and identities.”
Jarcho brings her own directing style to this production. Always forcing her actors to “make it new,” Jarcho disdains the idea of “going into character.” Rather, she challenges her actors to be with the audience. They should not retreat or build a fourth wall when acting. During rehearsals, at one point Jarcho has two characters deliver their lines as though every line were the punch line to a joke. Though Lightbody fusses about this method (“There are some things that I just want to say a certain way”), Jarcho insists on it, saying, “This is why the play is interesting. It’s happening now, in the room.”
Porter feels that “being in the moment” is a great way to do theater. She explains that if she played Bess any other way, it would be obviously false. It’s very easy to get carried away with long speeches, she says, but thinking about them as everyday speech allows her to be natural. “Being in character never jived with me anyhow,” Porter concludes.
Though excited to present the play to an audience, Jarcho is not overly concerned with its reception. “I’m just going to throw it down and see how people react…It’d be great if they got a little freaked out,” she says, smiling.