“Traveling Light” among the dead


David Beukema as Brian Epstein and Wade Vaughn as Joe Orton in “Traveling Light.”

Cemeteries are places we go to remember loved ones, to seek solace, and commune wiht the spirits of our forefathers.

And now, at least for a few weeks, it’s also where we can go to see theater.

Theatre Pro Rata is premiering a new play by Lindsay Harris Friel, about an imagined encounter between English playwright Joe Orton and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. The meeting takes place entirely in a graveyard. Director Natalie Novacek thought “why put a story about real people in a fake setting?”

This is a very voyeuristic show. There are no scene changes, no costume changes, no need for mood lighting. It’s just two guys in the cemetery. Joe Orton has a line in the play about loving “other people’s privacies.” He was the first to put people’s most intimate details on stage, and I think this is a play that he would be proud of.

Novacek found an ally in Susan Hunter-Weir, an active volunteer with the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, located on the corner of Lake and Cedar in Minneapolis. Hunter-Weir worked for many years counseling visual and performing arts majors at the University of Minnesota, and was thrilled at the idea of bringing theater to what’s commonly known as the “Layman’s Cemetery” (named for the family that used to own it).

I think this is a great use of the cemetery. The cemetery isn’t “active” in the sense that there are no new plots being sold – it’s considered full. But it’s an extraordinary place and things that bring people in to it are great. And a cemetery is about stories. You have saints and stinkers both in this place.

According to Hunter-Weir, Orton and Epstein would have fit right in amongst the Minnesota settlers. The two Brits led flamboyant, indulgent and ultimately tragic lives. Orton was bludgeoned to death by his lover at the age of 34, and Epstein accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills later that same month when he was just 32.


Joe Orton and Brian Epstein

Playwright Lindsay Harris Friel’s story explores what a meeting of the two might have been like in their final days. Both went to the same school, came from similar lower-class backgrounds, and had a knack for wooing rich benefactors. Friel says it’s not just their similarities, but their stark differences that make the idea of an encounter so intriguing.

Joe had drive where Brian was shy; Brian had class whereas Joe would thumb his nose at people. Brian nurtured rough young boys like the Beatles, just as Joe was starting to align himself with older, more mature figures.

Friel’s story is also based on a lot of research, along with some theorizing.

The last 8 pages of Orton’s diary are missing. We know he was in an affair with the manager of a male pop group when he was killed, but we don’t know who.

But staging a play outdoors – and particularly in a cemetery – has its challenges: weather, mosquitoes, the sound of airplanes overhead.

And then there are the bodies.

Susan Hunter-Weir estimates that the area in the cemetery where Theatre Pro Rata will be staging the play – the “paupers’ section” – covers approximately two thousand people buried in unmarked graves.

“Packed house every night,” quips director Natalie Novacek.

The cast and crew of “Traveling Light” are doing their best to respect the premises. They’ve even brought in blank headstones for props so that they won’t endanger any of the real ones. But Susan Hunter-Weir says there’s no problem with walking over dead bodies:

Cemeteries are really for the living – because that’s where people are coming to find their families. What remains is not necessarily the point. It’s that somebody remembered them – there was an intent there. It’s about remembering.

“Traveling Light” opens tomorrow night and runs through July 28.

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