A play within a play — that’s fairly familiar. But a sculpture within a play? Not so much. Untitled IV by Ruth Markofsky, the new drama by Alison Tatlock that opens this weekend at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater, is named after two of its main characters, the sculptor Ruth Markofsky and her latest large abstract sculpture, “Untitled IV.” The show and Tatlock’s residency with the UCSB theater department represent this year’s installment of Launch Pad, Professor Risa Brainin’s long-running series that gives UCSB students and faculty the opportunity to collaborate with a top playwright on a new work. Previous writer-participants include Beau Willimon (House of Cards). Sitting in the beautifully renovated Hatlen for a recent rehearsal, I got an advance peek not only at the fascinating hulk that set designer Nayna Ramey has created to portray Untitled IV, but also at the performance of Anne Torsiglieri, the UCSB faculty member who plays the artist. While she may play a sculptor in the story, it’s a life that Torsiglieri, along with director Brainin and the rest of the cast, is actually sculpting onstage, and one that’s full of incident, empathy, and historical resonance. The play takes place in Joshua Tree on April 16, 2013. The date is important because, while Ruth Markofsky lives and works in the California desert, she is originally from Boston, and over the course of the play’s 24-hour time frame, and as its events unfold at her home in Joshua Tree, she is continually reminded of her family back east by the news, which concerns the bombing that took place the day before at the finish of the Boston Marathon.
Putting aside the stereotype of the kooky contemporary artist whose head is in the clouds, Tatlock reveals Markofsky as a fully rounded person with many of the same concerns and sensitivities as her friends and neighbors. She faces the challenge of raising her adopted 3-year-old son as a single mother with a mixture of determination and humility. As a first-generation American born to Russian immigrant parents, she approaches her career as a fine artist with a distinctly double consciousness, knowing both how different she is from her parents and how much like them she may yet become. In the words of the playwright, Ruth’s hometown pride, awakened by the tragedy at the marathon, precipitates “a personal crisis that resonates with the national crisis.” She has a deadline approaching — “Untitled IV” is scheduled for unveiling at dawn, and it remains unfinished — but she also has the well-being of a small child to consider. This latter element is one with which Tatlock is intimately familiar, as she also has a family. “This is the first play I’ve written since becoming a mother,” said Tatlock, “and it very much reflects my own struggle to balance my creative life with the responsibilities of being a mom.”
In addition to the masterful Anne Torsiglieri, the student cast — Adrian Carter, Zackery Humphries, Tonea Lolin, and Skarlett Redd — will be joined by another fine and experienced Santa Barbara actress, Victoria Finlayson of Lit Moon Theatre Company. Musician and composer Randy Tico is working on the score, and the whole process is founded in UCSB’s ongoing commitment to the Launch Pad, which has made developing new plays not only a priority, but a serious commitment. For her part, Tatlock, who has written for HBO (In Treatment) and ABC (Betrayal), has nothing but praise for the program, which she describes as “innovative, exciting, and truly collaborative.”
Untitled IV by Ruth Markofsky comes to UCSB’s Hatlen Theater Thursday-Saturday, February 27-March 8, at 8 p.m., with a matinee performance on Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-7221 or visit www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu.