Shawn of the Dead – Maurie Lord’s Genesis West company resurfaces for ‘The Designated Mourner’

Jenna Scanlon has performed in several local productions around Santa Barbara, from Circle Bar B to SBCC Dana Sherlock photo
Jenna Scanlon has performed in several local productions around Santa Barbara, from Circle Bar B to SBCC
Dana Sherlock photo

Maurie Lord has a few things to say about his job as the head of theater company Genesis West.

“Doing a play is a giant pain in the butt. It’s hard, it’s expensive, it wrecks your health, you lose a lot of money, you lose friends. It’s a horrible, horrible experience to go through. It’s the worst thing a human being can ever do.”

Tom Hinshaw, left, and Brian Harwell from the play "The Designated Mourner
Tom Hinshaw, left, and Brian Harwell from the play “The Designated Mourner
“So to do one, it has to be really, really, really worthwhile. It’s gotta be special. It’s gotta be a challenge to the actors. You have to look back 10 years later and say, hell yes, we did that show!”

This is a tongue-in-cheeky preamble to talking about Genesis West’s only play this year, “The Designated Mourner,” by Wallace Shawn. The play — appropriately enough — will be performed at McDermott-Crockett Mortuary, a site Genesis West used last year for its pop-up staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.”

The two actors in that production, and two of Mr. Lord’s favorite company members, return for this new production: Tom Hinshaw and Brian Harwell. Rounding out the cast is Jenna Scanlon, a vet of several productions around town, from Circle Bar B to SBCC.

Mr. Shawn’s 1996 play takes place in the near present, in a Western country that has fallen to a military dictatorship much like Latin America in the 1970s. There are also guerrillas trying to overturn the government, and Mr. Shawn’s three characters tell of their experiences in a series of monologues, interspersed with the occasional dialog. Mr. Lord calls it “a moral coward’s journey during a time of political crisis.”

This intricate, talk-heavy play is similar in tone and subject matter to Mr. Shawn’s earlier solo play, “The Fever,” which Mr. Lord also staged as a pop-up theater event several years ago with Mr. Mitchell and a few months later with Mr. Hinshaw. “It goes to deep places, but the writing is so delicious that audiences happily go there with it.”

That solo pop-up show led to Mr. Lord’s current thing for nontraditional spaces. Once he started working on “Endgame” his mind turned to Mr. Shawn’s play, and how perfect it would be.

“This show is going to play great in a mortuary,” Mr.Lord says. “It’s a beautiful space and it has great energy.” Even though he notes it’s a somber place, he likes to hang out there.

Mr. Harwell, who’s always stepping up to a challenge — including trying his hand at direction this year with “Unfinished Business” at Circle Bar B.

In a previous Genesis West production, Mr. Harwell spent most of the time hanging upside-down as his character was tortured. This time the hard part comes from taking on nearly an hour’s worth of dialog.

“Being hung upside down is a lot easier,” laughs Mr. Harwell. “This has really been a workout for me. Wallace Shawn’s language, on the plus side is really eloquent and sometimes poetic. It is not dumbed down. It’s tremendously difficult to memorize. But when it does click, there’s a real value hearing it all told out loud, and it really jumps to life when it comes off the page like that.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Lord has been spending his time in his new vocation: learning mentalism and close magic, performing privately down at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. He’s always flirted with leaving theater behind, but one never knows. Maybe another play will grab his attention, but for now it’s best to catch his work while it’s up. And the magic?

“It’s made me a far more sympathetic director towards actors! It makes me more sympathetic to what they go through.”
‘The Designated Mourner’
Where: McDermott-Crockett Mortuary, 2020 Chapala St.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 8-9, 16, 21-23, Dec. 6-7
Cost: $25/$20
Information: www.genesiswest.org or 969-5637

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