Susan OConnor and Kittson ONeill in The Hunger Waltz
Sheila Callaghans unnerving play, The Hunger Waltz, at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, was named for its three-part construction and the fact that the main character chases an unnamable ache throughout the piece.
Its about not knowing what you need to make yourself happy, says the 30-year Callaghan, whose first childhood stories dealt with animals overcoming impossible odds. Later there was an MFA from UCLA, work in Los Angeles, and in 1999, the New York move and commitment to a writing career. Callaghans first major local production was Scab in 2002, and before that she won the Princess Grace Award for Kate Crackernuts, a play she wrote in just three months.
It was right after moving back here, she recalls. I had an awful job, and late at night my frustration exploded on the page.
The Hunger Waltz marks the East Coast debut of L.A.s Relentless Theatre Company, and artistic director, Olivia Honegger, with whom the playwright has an ongoing collaboration. The play itself has been seven years in the making, and embodies much of Callaghans particular notions on dramatic writing.
DS: What inspired The Hunger Waltz?
SC: Ive been writing this since 1998. It started as my thesis play, and initially, it began with the third part. I was exploring the power dynamic between teacher and student, and an alternative landscape, creating my own futuristic landscape. Where it went was somewhere completely different. I wrote it backward. It was a one-act that turned into a language exploration of societal pressures on a woman who has to make decisions about her body and what to do with it. Its about being pregnant, wanting to be pregnant, and her need to find freedom.
DS: The play follows the protagonist, Gwen, over a period of centuries?
SC: Yes, it starts in the 1700s on the East Coast, with a woman and her husband, who wants her to have a child. She develops a relationship with a female student, but its repressed. And this is reflected in the language of the time a lot of words to cover emotions. The second act moves to the 20th century with the same characters - husband wife, lover and the lovers boyfriend - moving across America. Gwen, still unfulfilled, keeps coming back to fulfill herself. Something like reincarnation, but thats not spoken about. The 3rd act is the 22nd century on the West Coast. Language is now truncated, almost like e-mail, with undulations reserved, but not repressed. Beth is now Gwens full-blown lover.
DS: So, is it a coming out play?
SC: Its not. Gwen finds out her answer isnt in a woman or a man, but in being alone. Unfortunately, she turns destructive in order to be alone and be whole. So the piece takes a turn that is sort of dark, and somewhat dangerous to watch. But its not depressing. At some point, you stop relating to the main character, and it becomes an intellectual exercise about language and identity. So, hopefully, people wont leave bludgeoned by the ending, but a little more thoughtful and satisfied.
DS: Will they also leave with some message?
SC: I dont think so. Its a story about a woman over a period of six hundred years. This began as a linguistic experiment, and it was hardest to employ believable language for the future part. I didnt want it to sound like robots talking. Its really my own logical conclusions about the evolution of language. This is a unique style for me because it attempts to work in three worlds, rather than in one small one. The play is very theatrical with three distinct environments done with one small set (by Orit Jacoby Carroll), grounded in the landscape of the bed. And theres some very creative sound design by Robert Kaplowitz. I hope people will go through something and come out the other end moved and most of all, entertained. Its dark, but theres six hundred years of humor here as well.