New Year's revolutions 

Atlanta actors offer original plays from diverse sources

Inspiration can come from any quarter.

Anything from a few lines of verse to a family trip can summon the muse, as demonstrated by several of the plays opening at Atlanta theaters in January. Not only are many of them written by local actors or performers, but they draw on an unusually diverse pool of source materials, showing just how flexible theater can be.

For instance, on Jan. 23 Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key presents his adaptation of Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer. The production marks the second time Key has adapted one of Percy's books, having staged Lost in the Cosmos at Theatrical Outfit in 1996, a production that opened the door for Moviegoer five years later.

Key explains that when he originally sought the rights to produce a stage version of Lost in the Cosmos in 1990, his friend William Sessions wrote a letter to the acclaimed novelist on his behalf. "Walker Percy died in May of that year, and I thought, 'Well, that's that,' but then in June, I found out from his agent that the day before he died, Walker said to extend the rights to me. I think that made all the difference in my getting permission to adapt The Moviegoer, since it's so difficult to get the rights after an author passes away, especially with that first generation, which has to take so much care and caution."

Key calls Percy a "cornerstone" author, whose writing has been extremely important to him. "The Moviegoer was the first of his books I read, because I heard that Flannery O'Connor admired him. I was about 30 years old, the same age as the moviegoer character, and the book was so illuminating on so many levels. It seemed like the kind of book I could lean on and return to again and again in my life. When I'm reading it, I frequently have to stop and reflect."

In addition to Lost in the Cosmos, Key has developed stage versions of the Book of Revelations, Pilgrim's Progress, Many Things Have Happened Since He Died and works by C.S. Lewis, although he's found The Moviegoer to be a special case. "With The Moviegoer I had to go more slowly than any other adaptation because it's so nuanced. It's like working with something very delicate. If I were making clothes, this would be like dealing with lace instead of heavy material."

Theatrical Outfit's Moviegoer stars Jeff Portell in the title role of New Orleans native Binx Bolling, as well as Shannon Malone, John Benzinger and Shelly McCook. Key says that having a specific directorial vision reveals whether a literary work can be extended to the stage.

Key reads The Moviegoer as a comic novel about a man on an existential search to make his own life as meaningful as the movies he sees. Key explains that in the production, "There are a number of scenes where Binx is in charge of what's happening, he's commenting on something or narrating something. Those scenes we'll score and light cinematically, as if he's narrating his own movie."

He adds, "But when he's falling in love unexpectedly or traveling to Chicago or relating to his half-brother, who's 14-years-old and in a wheelchair, those scenes are very realistic and plain and 'unmovielike.' I think Binx's journey here is that he becomes the hero of his own movie, he discovers the authenticity of his own life."

Actor Brad Sherrill credits Key's dramatic reading of the Book of Revelation for inspiring his one-man performance of The Gospel of John, to be staged Jan. 16-Feb. 4 at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage. Sherrill says that this will be the piece's first production in a theater, although he's tried it out at churches. "I first performed John at the United Methodist Church in Chamblee in July. I grew up in that church, and my first performance as an actor was there at age 11.

"It's an attempt to take an ancient text and make it alive for today," he continues. "It's the most compelling story there is, with such great politics and great conflict that it lends itself to this presentation. This is just the book, it's just an actor and the text, and I think it's very exciting. At different points, the audience become the other characters, they become the Disciples or the Pharisees."

Sherrill uses the New International Version of the Book of John, which he admires for its combination of conversational language and faithful adherence to the original text. "John is atypical from the three synoptic Gospels that preceded it," he explains. "The others seem more like reportage of events, and John has a more penetrating view of what's going on. It's also called the most poetic of the Gospels. And I picked it for reasons of length, since I wanted to be able to do the whole thing in two hours with an intermission. In the time it takes to watch a couple of prime-time television programs, one can see and hear a complete Gospel performed live."



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