Monday, August 5, 2013
SCOTT BURKELL: KNOWS THE ABC'S AND XYZ'S OF PLAYWRITING
Playwright Scott Burkell and the cast of LMNOP
In 2005, a friend presented writer Scott Burkell with a book, "Ella Minnow Pea" by Mark Dunn, a collection of letters that was destined to change his life and send him on a unique journey. That trip is culminating now, eight years later. When Scott read Dunn's book, a parable or fable about life on an island paradise off the coast of South Carolina, he immediately heard singing and thought "musical in the making, with choral groups galore."
Scott loves language and crossword puzzles and realized that the book was challenging and meaningful, dealing as it does with a threat to our indispensable freedom of speech. Holding his breath, Scott shared the satirical story with his writing partner Paul Loesel and found his reaction to this cautionary tale matched his own. Now after working on the project off and on for a scant eight years, they are busily mounting their new musical, renamed "LMNOP," at Goodspeed's revered workshop theater, the Norma Terris, 33 North Main Street, Chester until Sunday, August 18. For tickets ($44), call 860-873-8668 or go online to www.goodspeed.org. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
The island of Nollop was named for Nevin Nollop whose claim to fame was his authorship of a pangram, a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet. His immortal offering, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog," has long been a staple of the English language and it was emblazened on the base of Nollop's statue. What happens to this happy and peaceful square of land and its community when the letter "z" suddenly and mysteriously drops off the inscription and crashes to the ground? Is it a function of a poor adhesive or something more sinister?
The powers that be, the members of the Island Council, forbid the use of the letter "z" in speech or writing, with a series of progressively abusive punishments if they are disobeyed. At first the loss of "z" in zipper, breeze and pizza doesn't seem so serious. But what happens when a series of other letters, like h, k, s, d and t follow until only "l,m,n,o,p" remain? A totalitarian state with Hitler-like overtones is suddenly created. It takes a teenage girl, Ella Minnow Pea, to raise the alarm and work to save her home.
Today Scott Burkell and Paul Loesel are seeing the fruits of their labor of language and love. A lab production in New York City last fall brought the piece to the attention of Goodspeed's Executive Producer Michael Price and his associates. Scott feels it's "wonderful to be away from the critical eye of New York and it's exhilarating to work under pressure. We are locked in a room with a piano every day." On the morning we spoke, he and Paul were instituting "major changes that will pull the rug out from under the cast, but they'll be able to handle them." The show is now going to start-and end-differently. He conceded "It's a work in progress and as such is challenging. There are no easy changes." Working at the Norma Terris is "a really good supportive atmosphere."
"LMNOP" is, at heart, a love story and a fable. It concerns "what happens when choice is taken away, how quickly rulings can get out of hand." Because of the play's intense wordplay, the cast must "really listen and not adlib, because of the danger of accidentally saying illegal letters." The author Mark Dunn, a playwright himself, has been involved in the project. Joe Calarco is directing.
As collaborators, Scott and Paul have been together for more than two decades. "We're the right fit, sympatico, true partners who hear each other's voices in our heads."
Scott feels "whatever your cause is, you can relate it to this story. For Ella, it's freedom of speech." As to whether their sweeping changes are significant and right, "ripping off the right half of the show," you'll just have to come see the musical for yourself. Remember what a pangram is and, whatever you do, don't speak or write the letter "z." That means think carefully before you say "LMNOP" has a lot of "pizzazz."