1/31: It’s a Picnic; Bring the ANTS

Ants18Carol Todd and Michael Samuel Kaplan co-star in ANTS, the comedy by Saviana Stanescu that makes its world premiere run beginning February 7 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.  (photo by SuzAnne Barabas)

Her fabulous folio of full-length and one-act plays includes Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, in which an unemployed clown from (fictional but extremely unhappy) Moldava desperately avoids deportation while bonding with other lost souls in New York City. Aurolac Blues, in which “Two Gypsy street-kids, high on Aurolac (a silver-paint that’s huffed from plastic bags), dream of an America they know from movies and McDonalds leftovers.” Waxing West, in which a Romanian cosmetologist’s new life in NYC is complicated by the appearance of executed Soviet-era dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, who happen to be vampires.

She’s Bucharest-born Saviana Stanescu, and if you’re discerning a pattern in her body of work, it’s probably a good time to mention that Ants, her play that goes into previews on Thursday, February 7 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, involves a couple of sisters who’ve emigrated from an Eastern European country.

Beyond that, all bets are delightfully off, as the offbeat three-character comedy goes its own way, via a storyline that centers around the relationship between factory worker (and older sister) Kara, her younger, dependent student sibling (and brilliant biochemist) Mia, an academic associate, and a whole lot of endlessly fascinating ants.

Those titular critters are the subject of study for Mia (Maria Silverman) and Dr. Kohn (Michael Samuel Kaplan), who are endeavoring to perfect a process via which worker ants can be converted into queens. That lifestyle of pure research is threatened, however, when Kara (the great NJ Rep stock company regular Carol Todd) is hit by a double whammy — she’s lost her job, and she’s pregnant. It’s up to Mia, never exactly a people person, to enact “a radical solution to save the lifestyle she has almost grown to love, her sister’s teetering sanity, and her beloved ants.”

Actor and director Jeff Zinn — whose late father was Howard Zinn, celebrated author of A People’s History of the United States, and whose cuban-heeled shoes can be seen standing in for John Travolta in the opening moments of Saturday Night Fever — wrangles the human members of the cast in a show that’s being described as a “quirky comedy…with an accent.”

Your upperWETside correspondent spoke to Stanescu — a faculty member at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, as well as at Ithaca College — while she headed back to sunny Ithaca, NY following a stimulating interlude of looking in on rehearsals, laughing and watching movies with NJ Rep’s Gabe and SuzAnne…

SaviCT57Playwright, poet, professor and “ARTivist” Saviana Stanescu — a woman whose capsule bio reads “born in Bucharest, Romania, on a cold February morning during Ceausescu’s dictatorship, and ‘reborn’ in New York in the hot days of 2001″ — visits Long Branch in the balmy days of February for the opening of her three-character play ANTS.

upperWETside: Without knowing a whole lot about ANTS coming in to this conversation, I pick up on the fact that it has a couple of immigrants from Eastern Europe at the heart of it; a thread that runs through pretty much all of your plays and a rich vein of material that I’m sure you’re still mining for gold…

SAVIANA STANESCU: The main aspect of all my plays, since coming to the United States on a Fulbright grant in 2001, has been people coming to New York City from other countries — or even just other towns — and how they negotiate an identity between old and new sets of values. How they find their potential, find themselves, make a new home; the things they keep from the old country and the things they do to find a new identity.

For this production, we’ve made the sisters from an East European background, with the accents…but when I wrote it I didn’t want to specify where these people were from. I want to see it performed by Asian casts, African casts, Latinos…immigrants from anywhere in the world.

So when you get the germ of an idea for a script, what do you tend to draw upon from your own ‘old country’ background? Was there a specific experience or person who inspired the work that would become ANTS?

It was inspired by something I heard on an NPR program…some professors were talking about ants, how they reproduce, how they fulfill their roles; talking about it with such humor that it made me listen. It seems that worker ants are attacked if they try to reproduce, and the professors were wondering what would happen if those ants were allowed to have sex…it’s an experiment that really happened, and it provided the basic idea for the play.

All the talk of worker ants; the whole social hierarchy of the ant colony and the attempts to radically transform a regimented system of doing things…could we take this as a comment upon the order that you grew up under, back in the Bloc? 

I don’t want to draw a clear parallel between East and West, Communism and Capitalism…I’m not pointing to just one way of society. I may be pushing some stereotypes in a sense, but it’s not so much political as personal. And I hope, in the process of making people think with this play, that I make everything fun.

This play was presented as one of New Jersey Rep’s series of script readings, which they’ve been doing for many years and from which so many of their fully staged productions have evolved. Did they kind of find you first, or did you approach them with your play, knowing the kind of reputation they’ve acquired after so many years of presenting nothing but brand new works?

I sent it to them, and it was done as a reading about a year ago, which I was there for. I was very impressed with the audience…they were intelligent, passionate, interested in the details and the process of development.

New Jersey Repertory is a highly professional environment. The people there, Gabe and SuzAnne, have great taste, and they really understand my work…they take risks; they’re not following any trend. They have a vision.

They also have quite a flair for dark comedies. They’ve put things up on their stage, under the premise of doing comedy, that raised an eyebrow with me…and I thought I’d seen everything. Looks like ANTS could definitely take its place within that tradition of satirical, challenging, subversive works with a wicked sense of humor. 

I try to bring a sense of tragicomedy to all my plays. Basically, this play takes on big themes, but keeps the focus on the sisters, on the women’s choices. It’s about the American Dream. It’s about love, sexuality, desire, passion…and ants!

Ants presents matinee and evening previews on February 7 and 8 (2pm and 8pm) and 9 (3pm); opens February 9 at 8pm (sold out), presents a matinee performance on February 10, then continues until March 10 with performances Thursdays through Sundays. Ticket reservations, showtimes and additional information can be obtained here.