"I was fascinated by the people who stay behind in those towns."
In Nibbler, nostalgia takes a trippy turn
Ken Urban started work on Nibbler in the wake of 9/11, but in all the years since, he figures it's never had a true developmental reading – a one-act production and a workshop or so, but that's it.
"I put it away," Urban says. "I don't know why." Moments later, he adds: "I protected it because it was so personal."
Now consider that Nibbler features an alien monster that chews on teenagers during their moments of sexual bliss. That's personal?
Sure. Despite its high concept, this comedy, which is being produced by the Amoralists in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, draws on Urban's high school years in Medford, New Jersey. It depicts a quintet of recent graduates in the early 90s, on the lip of their new lives.
"It's me looking back," Urban says.
He adds that the qualities of Medford – which reported a population of 23,033 during the 2010 Census – are important to the play. Notably, even though New York City and Philadelphia are nearby, they're just out of reach: "It feels really cut off from the rest of the world."
Nibbler features Adam (James Kautz, artistic director of the Amoralists), a man in his 30s remembering the summer after his high school years and encountering the friends who've faded from his life. Of the group, Adam is the one who has remained in Medford while everyone else has drifted away. "I was fascinated by the people who stay behind in those towns," Urban says.
James Kautz (left) and the cast of 'Nibbler'
Benjamin Kamine, the show's director, adds, "It's not just about high school in the early 90s. It feels very much about New Jersey," and specifically being a small city near a large one. "Being that close is tantalizing and painful."
He continues, "If you nail the setting, everything else flows from that."
Kamine and Urban also wanted to nail the casting. They particularly wanted to make sure Kautz, a youthful 35, looked significantly older than his remembered friends -- teenage roles that it took an extensive search to fill. Often, Kamine says, characters in their late teens are played by actors a decade older or more – too old for their purposes.
Beyond the need to preserve the age gap, Urban also wanted younger actors for their authenticity. When teaching at Davidson College in North Carolina, he says, he had his students work with the Nibbler dialogue and became convinced of the difference younger actors would make.
Urban says he's pleased that the cast and designers – including the puppet designer, Stefano Brancato, who created the alien – have committed to the script's more extreme elements. "The sex scenes really matter in the play because they are the things that change so radically," he explains.
And what about that alien? How does it fit into this journey through adolescence?
"As a fan of old Dr. Who classics, and sci-fi films and horror films, I was really fascinated to bring those elements into the play," Urban says. He adds that the alien offers "a very emotionally rich experience while at the same time being completely artificial. And I sort of love that."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'Nibbler.' Go here to browse our current offers.
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Photos by Russ Rowland. Top photo: James Kautz and Rachel Franco