Two couples who are best friends and neighbors are on the brink of conflict. Herman is facing challenges. His pal Lou just got a huge opportunity. There’s the rub of Imbroglio, a play by Melissa Maxwell getting its world premiere by Great River Shakespeare Festival June 21-July 30 in Winona, Minnesota, where Maxwell is an co-associate artistic director. Opening night is June 24.
In the summer festival on the banks of the upper Mississippi River, Maxwell has been an actor and a director (she’s directing this new play) — and now a first-time festival playwright.
The word imbroglio — that noun about “an extremely confused or complicated situation,” in which the “g” is silent — seems to perfectly fit a situation of tangled friendships and feelings.
Maxwell explained, “While it is very much an ensemble play, the central character is Herman, who finds himself up against various challenges and cannot get out of his own way. When his best friend, Lou, falls into a great economic opportunity, Herman has difficulty watching his friend thrive as he stalls.”
Great River Shakespeare Festival program notes further explain: “Imbroglio witnesses two couples, best friends, living next door to each other, trying to navigate friendship and marriage. However, when Herman finds himself in more trouble than he can handle, boundaries are crossed, and allegiances are formed. While some aid and abet, others ignore and deny. What are our obligations to others? How does one help someone who doesn’t want to be helped? Is it even possible to help someone who doesn’t know they need it?”
“This is my third full-length to be produced,” Maxwell told me. “My first two plays poured out of me; I had the first draft of my first play in two weeks and I had finished the first draft of my second play in a few months. However, this one I’ve been working on for 15 years. I know, that’s a long time. However, I believe that is due, in part, because I am not a full-time writer. I do not get up every day to write. Most of my time is filled with acting, directing or teaching. So, I get back to my writing when I have the time. The other reason, which is a big one, is that I truly believe I hadn’t lived enough life yet when that first big idea came to me. I needed to experience more before being able to put all the puzzle pieces together.”
The company of five includes Chauncy Thomas as Herman, Ashley Bowen as Viola, William Sturdivant as Lou, Eliana Rowe as Betty, Adeyinka Adebola as Manny. China Pharr and Daniel Stewart are understudies. Artists in the GRSF season typically appear in two of the three summer productions there. The 2023 season also includes stagings of As You Like It (launching the season with a June 20 preview) and The Winter’s Tale (which begins June 22).
“Imbroglio takes place in Rhode Island for no other reason than I grew up there and got tired of pretending that I wasn’t writing about the place I grew up in,” Maxwell said. “It has been great fun hearing the actors tackle that dialect. The play also takes place in 1970. So, the costume designer and I are having great fun with bold patterns, leisure suits and lots of polyester.”
Maxwell said the rehearsal experience has been typical of the best of new play processes; the script was not “frozen” on day one.
“We’ve made incredible discoveries, almost daily,” she explained the week of 12. “While the structure of the script has not changed, I have cut or made changes to dialogue throughout the play. The greatest discovery came a week and a half ago when one actor asked me a simple question about his character. When I realized I couldn’t cogently answer the question, it forced me to go back and clarify for myself the arc and purpose of his entire character. That led to more line cuts and tweaks. I’ve probably cut two and a half pages from the script. So I’m excited to get into the theater and add all of the technical elements.”
The production team includes Katie Cunningham (voice and text coach), Ivy Treccani (scenic and properties designer), John Merritt (costume designer), James Balistreri (lighting designer), Scott O’Brien (sound designer), Kenyana Trambles (wig and makeup designer), Tonia Sina (intimacy director), Benjamin Boucvalt (fight choreographer), Tarah Flanagan (dialect coach), Madison Tarchala (production stage manager), Abbi Hess (stage manager), Nicholas Carlstrom (assistant stage manager), Brittany Staudacher (costume design assistant), Joseph Millett & Karl Gfall (production managers), Ella Egan (assistant production manager).
What does Maxwell want the audience to take away from Imbroglio?
The playwright said, “The other day, in passing, a patron asked what I wanted the audience to learn from seeing my play. I don’t ever prescribe to an audience what they should glean from my work. I write, usually, because I have questions I am trying to answer for myself: how did we get here, why does that happen, why would one behave in such a manner, what causes the following to happen…? Most typically, those questions arise from hearing something on the radio, seeing something on TV or witnessing/experiencing some event. In this particular situation, it was an amalgamation of a national event that occurred that led me to ponder various situations in my own experience.”
What playwrights have inspired Maxwell — or influenced her work — over the years?
“I read a lot of plays, both for my work as a director who specializes in new play development, and for my work as the director of professional development at The Stella Adler Studio of Acting,” she explained. “So, I am always fascinated by and admire new forms of storytelling or plays that make me see something from a completely different perspective. The first play I ever wrote, [the comedy Unrequited Love], was very much influenced by Sam Art Williams’ play Home, which I was lucky enough to perform in at the Crossroads Theatre Company.”
She added, “Something about the style of that play was very present for me in writing my first play. Written in a series of vignettes and monologues, Unrequited Love takes a serious look at why Black men and women have such a hard time loving each other and themselves. It looks nothing like Sam Art Williams’ Home, but I can honestly say that Home influenced my work as a writer starting out. Home tells the story of one man’s life. It is a three-actor play. One male actor plays the man, two female actors play all the other people he encounters in his life. I believe I played 13 different characters in that production. As an actor and as an audience member, I love the magical transformation of one actor into many different things. That is why Unrequited Love has six actors playing 26 different characters.”
“The one other playwright whose work I have encountered a lot in my career is Lynn Nottage,” Maxwell said. “I have had the great honor of performing in and directing many of her plays. I greatly admire her work; there is a reason she is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.”