As a fundraiser for its upcoming trip to the Aug. 8-30 Edinburgh Festival Fringe (a.k.a. the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) in Scotland, Wordshed Productions will present the latest-and-greatest version of A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever, an original drama written and directed by Wordshed co-founder and co-artistic director Matthew Spangler, July 30-Aug. 1 in the Studio Six Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wordshed will perform A Paradise It Seems Aug. 9-14 at the Bedlam Theatre in Edinburgh.
In addition to Spangler, the show's cast includes Ghost & Spice Productions co-founder Jordan Smith; Wordshed company members Chris Chiron, Hannah Blevins, and Maria Chrysanthou; and Sharlene Thomas.
"Since Wordshed attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002 with Crash Diet and Other Sins, an adaptation of Clyde Edgerton's and Jill McCorkle's fiction, we have wanted to go back," Matt Spangler confesses. "So, you could say we've been working on this current production — A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever — for two years.
"The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the world's largest theater festival," Spangler notes, "with over 500 performances daily from groups all over the world. It's a terrific honor to bring our part of Triangle theater to this festival for the second time. We feel that this performance is a strong representation of what Wordshed does with adaptation — specifically, the way we strive to preserve the author's original words and have actors play, simultaneously, both characters and narrators. This year, the festival has asked Wordshed to lead a workshop on the adaptation of fiction for the stage, which we are excited to do."
He notes, "Wordshed has produced a performance of John Cheever's short stories for the past two summers. Each show used different stories. This particular version weaves together elements (we hope the strongest ones) from the past two shows."
Spangler says the current version of A Paradise It Seems adapts three of Cheever's short stories for the stage. He says, "In 'O Youth and Beauty!' an aging track star insists, despite his wife's protests, on running a hurdle race over his neighbors' living room furniture, a race fated to end in disaster. A married couple in 'The Wrysons' seem to lead perfect suburban lives, except that each harbors a deep and embarrassing secret. Late one night, they simultaneously discover what the other has been so desperately hiding. While lounging at a friend's swimming pool, the protagonist of Cheever's best-known short story, 'The Swimmer,' decides to swim home by going pool-to-pool across his suburban but a terrible realization awaits his arrival."
Frequently dubbed the "Chekhov of the suburbs," the late John Cheever (1912-82) was a critically acclaimed American short story writer and novelist who vividly chronicled the angst of middle-class, suburban America. The main theme of the Quincy, Massachusetts native was "the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life," claimed one critic.
As for A Paradise It Seems, Spangler says, "There is no message per se, but I am drawn to Cheever's work because of the way it juxtaposes humor and tragedy in American suburban settings. Although these stories were written nearly 50 years ago, they are so familiar they seem like they could have been written yesterday. Cheever's characters and settings are all around us (especially in the Triangle) with their green lawns, neighborhood barbecues, and country club memberships. But behind this façade of idyllic suburban life are terrible and comic skeletons threatening to ruin everything. Ultimately, what I like most about Cheever's work is that he makes you laugh in the face of tragedy."
Besides playwright and director Matt Spangler, who also serves as the show's lighting, costume, and sound designer, the production team for A Paradise It Seems includes set designer Rob Hamilton.
Spangler says the set is "very simple. We use two wooden table chairs, a sofa, and three pieces of lawn furniture," he says. The lighting is "natural stage lighting," and the costumes include "swimming suits, bathrobes, and suburban party wear."
Matt Spangler warns, "Our representation of the swimming pools in 'The Swimmer' makes the stage and actors wet. Since the entire production is highly physical, with actors required to do a lot of movement and even running, it is a challenge to keep the stage from becoming too slippery to perform on."
He adds, "Taking a show overseas is also a terrific challenge from a producing standpoint. There are thousands of small details to manage all from North Carolina, including finding and purchasing the set; sending out press releases, flyers, and posters; booking hotel rooms; negotiating with the theatre over costs, rehearsal times, start times, light plots, and set details; and, of course, the usual challenges associated with international travel."
But, Spangler says, "[A Paradise It Seems] is a chance for Triangle audiences to see what Wordshed is bringing to the festival," Spangler says. "It's also a fundraiser to enable Wordshed to cover some of its expenses. So, we're hoping that people will come out and see the show before it goes overseas!"
Wordshed Productions presents A Paradise It Seems: The Short Stories of John Cheever Friday-Saturday, July 30-31, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 1, at 6 p.m. in the Studio Six Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10 ($5 students and $8 seniors and UNC faculty and staff), but donations are welcome. 919/969-7121 or http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/tickets.htm. Note: The parking lots around Swain Hall are now paid parking. Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/index.htm. John Cheever: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/cheever.htm. Edinburgh Festival Fringe: http://www.edfringe.com/. Bedlam Theatre: http://www.bedlamfringe.co.uk/.