The story told in “God’s Ear” sounds like familiar drama, but the play by Jenny Schwartz tells the story in an extraordinary way, explained Al Schnupp, professor of theater at Cal Poly, who directs and designed the production.
A young couple copes with the impending death of their son. The wife begins to lose her grip on reality. To avoid his family, the husband goes on more and more business trips, cruises bars and considers an affair. Their young daughter, confused and somewhat jealous of her parents’ reactions, converses with imaginary characters.
A tragedy, it also has elements of comedy and fantasy, and the director calls the playwright’s unique use of language “gymnastic.”
“The story is deeply, emotionally moving. It deals with such things as having favorite children, feeling guilt or guilting a spouse when something happens to a child. It’s authentic. It rings true…but whole scenes are funny. You find yourself thinking, ‘I can’t believe they said that.’ ”
Two such scenes are a discussion in a bar about wife swapping and another where the husband is considering having an affair.
“These are hysterically funny,” Schnupp said, “but also riveting and truthful.”
The element of fantasy adds another dimension to the play, with visits from the tooth fairy, a transvestite flight attendant, and G.I. Joe.
“I think of these fantastical characters as guardian angels or healers,” the director said. “The three bizarre characters help them to heal.”
Some of the dialogue is “normal,” but the playwright’s style involves “gymnastic,” often poetic wordplay.
“She dissects current speech patterns, mocks our overuse of meaningless words and relies on clichés and repetition to impart a powerful effective tone,” Schnupp said.
One example is a three-minute recital of familiar clichés to create a heartfelt monologue as the father imagines a reunion with his son.
There are also seven short songs that comment on the action or provide mood.
Schnupp has never seen the play performed, and he made a point of not seeing it so that his own interpretation would be completely original. He is known for designing and directing unusual, offbeat productions, so this one intrigued him.
“I’m not excited by realism. I want to do something on stage that can’t be done on film.”
The playwright gives open directions in the script. She lets the director and the actors do their own thing, he said, “So I just took off.”
Schnupp’s creative staging is apparent from the first scene, when the mother and father are in the hospital, awaiting word of their son’s condition from near drowning. He has them literally hanging in mid-air in harnesses. The tooth fairy, G.I. Joe (representing toys the son had) and the transvestite flight attendant are colorfully costumed. Thomas John Bernard is costume designer.
“The play is incredibly simple, and incredibly complex,” Schnupp said. “The playwright has captured the dichotomies. It’s funny and tremendously sad.”
The unusual production has inspired an art competition and exhibition.
An open call went out to community and student artists. Artists were challenged to read the play and create a visual interpretation of the story, a character, a scene or a line from the play.
Sixty-five artists responded, 26 from the community and the others from the campus. The gallery, in the backstage area of the Spanos Theatre, will open to the public at 7:15 p.m., 45 minutes before curtain, and will also be open for 30 minutes after the performance.
IF YOU GO
What: Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department's fall production, “God’s Ear"
When: 8 p.m. Nov 8-10, Nov. 15-17
Where: Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly campus
Tickets: General admission,$15; student and senior citizens tickets, $12. To reserve seats, call 805-756-2787.