While you never know what you'll find in a play by New York playwright Derek Ahonen — his stories have included extended sexual families, cannibals, utopian communities, and contemporary noir plotlines — you can safely bet on a couple of things. First, it will be gritty. And second, it may take you days, even weeks, to decide how you feel about his characters.
That's because Ahonen, who is the founder and chief playwright of New York City theater company the Amoralists, doesn't deal in black and white, good versus evil. His work explores morally ambiguous people in challenging, often bizarre situations. In his work Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter, a lesbian couple's life explodes when their daughter is accused of cannibalism; in The Bad and the Better, two shady brothers work their way through a Raymond Chandler-esque labyrinth of anarchists, cops, and corrupt politicians.
And in The Transcendents, a new play that the Village Repertory Co. commissioned — more on that in a moment — a drifter arrives in Los Angeles after a 10-year absence in search of the rock band the Transcendents. As his quest for the band members continues, he confronts dark, painful truths about himself and those around him, dealing with issues from childhood trauma to murder. "It's essentially a play about transcendence," Ahonen says. "It's a bunch of characters trying to overcome very painful lives and childhoods. It's told through this veneer of a rock 'n' roll detective story, which is very plot-oriented, but underneath it all is this journey into a painful past for these people."
It's of a piece with Ahonen's larger body of work, which can be summarized by the Amoralists' mission: to produce works of theater "of no moral judgment." "The company was born out of the idea of creating theater that wasn't message-oriented, that had protagonists who were more anti-heroes. We're really influenced by a lot of the films from the 1970s, where there were lots of gray characters, not black and white," Ahonen says. "It's kind of me trying to justify my own imperfections."
And how did Charleston's Village Rep come to commission a play from a lauded New York playwright, one who's been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker? It comes down to fearlessness. Last summer, the Village Rep staged Ahonen's Happy in the Poor House, a working-class comic drama about an MMA fighter and his dysfunctional collection of family and friends. The Rep's founder and producing artistic director, Keely Enright, says it was a very challenging play to do and different from the type of work that's done in Charleston. But it was a risk paid that off in spades. "It was a very gratifying process," she says. "We were fortunate enough to have Derek come into town, and it was one of the first productions of his work that he hasn't been closely associated with, so he was very excited and gracious. He was here for the entire run."
He and Enright, as well as the rest of the Village Rep team, developed a strong working relationship, and out of that grew the idea for Ahonen to write a play specifically for the Village Rep, almost becoming part of the company as a playwright-in-residence. Enright gave him zero restrictions, asking instead that he write what he wanted to write. "I thought that was really cool," Ahonen says. "They trusted me to write something from where I am in life right now."
In addition to her admiration for his work, the fact that Ahonen was not local was very important to Enright. "This was an opportunity to expand our company, and connect with someone from outside of Charleston," she says. "You really need someone from somewhere else to come into your community, and infuse your community with energy and perspective that's different from what we already have. He was looking for fresh ideas, and so were we."
After some strenuous fundraising by Enright and her board of directors last fall, Ahonen traveled to Charleston this past January, spending two months living in the city and writing the first draft of The Transcendents. The experience of being in a new place was part of the artistic process, he says. "The town was a mystery to me, and the story was a mystery, so that definitely colored it."
The playwright's initial residency culminated in a public reading of the first draft of The Transcendents at the end of February. After that, Ahonen returned to New York and continued working on it. Once he felt it was ready to go, he handed it over to Enright — she's directing the play — and she and her cast went into rehearsals. Even though the show is largely in Enright's hands, the process has been extremely collaborative, she says. She and Ahonen talk after every rehearsal, often spending an hour and a half on the phone going through little word changes, inflection changes, and the actors' thoughts on their characters. "Actors play such an important role when you're creating a character for the first time," Enright says. "Rehearsals that should be two and a half hours are four. The great thing about producing plays that have already been done is that all the kinks have been worked out — everything's been softened and shaped already. So that's been a challenge every night, but it's a really, really, gratifying one."
Ahonen arrives two days before opening night, and as excited as he is to see the curtain go up on The Transcendents for the first time, he's also really looking forward to the hours leading up to that. "The 48 hours before opening night are the most exciting 48 hours of a new play for me," he says. "It's when everything goes wrong, no matter who's doing it. The clock's against you, and a prop's missing, and one of the actors keeps messing up her lines, and the lights aren't gelled right — it's everything that makes the theater life the greatest life in the world. Even if I'm just hanging out in the catacombs of the theater, I want to be around that energy."