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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When they decided to partner on a production of The Ugly One, Soho Rep and The Play Company didn't realize they were dealing with such an emotionally resonant play. Their reaction to that discovery illustrates what makes a co-production work.
It makes sense that the theatres would be interested in the show, which is now playing at Soho Rep's space. For one thing, it's by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, and both companies have a history of producing international work. For another, it feels like it belongs in a theatre, not on a screen, which is central to most Soho Rep and PlayCo productions.
When The Ugly One begins, Lette, a successful engineer, is told he's too hideous to present his work to the world. But when a plastic surgeon gives him a new face, the results are so amazing that men across the country get surgery to look just like him. Soon, everyone looks the same, no one really remembers who they are, and almost nobody worries about it, since they're all having more sex.
Obviously, this is a play with big ideas. None of the actors distort their faces, for instance, and Alfredo Narciso, who plays Lette, is actually very handsome. We're asked to accept that these good looking people are ugly because everyone says they are, which pointedly critiques our standards of beauty.
Both Sarah Benson, who heads Soho Rep, and Kate Loewald, who leads the Play Company, were eager to tackle these themes. "We haven't gone after that sensational idea [of plastic surgery]," Benson says. "We've been more interested in the questions that it raises, ideas about commerce and beauty and all those concepts."
That speaks to how the companies have collaborated on this production. Granted, they are splitting costs, which is a major element of any co-production, but they're also pooling intellectual resources. Both companies had representatives in the audition room, and both participated in meetings about everything from design to community outreach. "Having all those minds in the room was beneficial to the show," says Loewald. "There wasn't a case of power struggle or a Play Company point of view or a Soho Rep point of view, and this isn't always the case in a co-production."
Both women stress, however, that even though they were sharing ideas, they didn't want to micromanage director Daniel Aukin and the rest of the creative team. "I'm used to being the person sitting by the side of the director in the room and responding to what I see," says Loewald. "I try to ask questions, saying, 'What about this?' or 'Have you thought about that?' versus 'Do this.'"
By watching the production develop, the companies were able to adjust their strategy about how to promote it. Discussions of the play's ideas inspired PlayCo and Soho Rep staffers to create special talkbacks like The Economy of Beauty (Februray 18), in which (including a former supermodel) will discuss how personal appearance affects the way we do business.
But as they watched rehearsals, Loewald and Benson were startled to discover that this politically provocative play was also emotionally stirring, especially in the mind-bending final scene. "The tenderness was a real surprise to me, a lovely surprise," says Benson. "I hadn't expected the end to feel so lovely and warm."
Similarly, the marketing was redesigned to address the human experience of the show and not the sweeping political arguments. This didn't necessarily happen because of the ending's unexpected power, but it's another example of how producers are constantly required to change their approach. Benson says, "We're lucky that both our companies are very nimble, and we're able to adjust how we talk about the play as we're learning about it."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor