The Unicorn Theatre has a long history of developing the work of new playwrights. In the last few years, the Unicorn has established a connection with the up-and-coming talent Lia Romeo.
The New Jersey-based playwright is known for mixing dark humor with tough issues, like pedophilia, alcoholism, and - in her latest play, "Hungry" - eating disorders.
Fresh Voice and Dark Humor
It was the summer of 2008 when Cynthia Levin, producing artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, first encountered playwright Lia Romeo’s work. Levin thought Romeo "was one of the newest, freshest voices" she'd heard in a long time.
While attending the annual MFA Playwrights' Workshop at the Kennedy Center, Levin saw a staged reading of Romeo’s “Green Whales” – a warped romantic comedy about a 38-year-old woman with Turner's syndrome, a disorder that makes her appear to be 13. Her sister tries to fix her up.
"I loved the dark humor," says Levin. "I loved coming at things and issues from different angles and from a young female perspective."
Development to Production
The Unicorn Theatre presented the world premiere of “Green Whales” in 2010 – and worked closely with Romeo to develop her next play, "Hungry." Amy, a high school student who's a bit of a misfit, is desperate to lose weight to make the dance team.
The opening scene of "Hungry" takes place in a cartoonish blue bathroom. Popular and pretty Bianca, played by Chioma Anyanwu, tries to encourage her friend, Amy, played by Dina Thomas, to throw up.
Amy takes loud, quick breaths.
BIANCA: "Are you ready?"
AMY: "I guess." (Sound of the toilet seat lifted.)
BIANCA: “Ok, how about this: a twinkie weiner sandwich - a twinkie, sliced in half, then filled with hot dogs and nacho cheese."
AMY: "That's disgusting."
BIANCA: "I know. So, does it make you want to puke?"
AMY: (gagging sounds) "Oh, this is not going to work."
BIANCA: "Are you sure?"
BIANCA: "Ok, I guess you'll just have to eat less then."
AMY: "I guess."
Impulses and Taboos
Playwright Lia Romeo says "Hungry" is about impulses that we usually keep under control and what happens when we try to control them too much.
"I think taboos are really interesting dramatically because these are these things that we don’t talk about," says Romeo. "And to talk about them on stage is automatically, you’ve got the audience tuning in."
The cast of "Hungry" also includes Amy’s mother, played by Katie Gilchrist, who has her own issues; and a Minotaur, played by Jeff Smith. Romeo says this mythical creature - part-man, part-bull - is comic, but symbolic.
"The Minotaur is an example of this beast that is not controlling any of its impulses and then we’ve got all these people trying to mold themselves into what they think they ought to be," says Romeo. "I thought the contrast between the two would end up interesting."
Insights Through Collaboration
Dina Thomas, who plays Amy, has been involved with "Hungry" for the past year, from early readings in development to rehearsals leading up to the production. Thomas, who received her MFA in Acting from UMKC in 2011, says it’s been an invaluable experience to have this level of interaction with the playwright.
"You’re not often fortunate enough as an actor to literally look across the table and there’s your playwright and you can say, 'What were you imagining is happening to this person in this moment?'" says Thomas.
"You sometimes have to make those assumptions and work with your director and come up with something, but you can’t often refer to the person who put the words on the page."
Director Cynthia Levin cautions that there’s no pretext of a public service announcement about this production. Lia Romeo’s creation "Hungry," according to Levin, is a "crazy, wild ride" dealing with serious, provocative subjects in a lighthearted way.
“Hungry” runs through March 18, 2012 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 816-531-7529.