Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Rapid Rise of Sarah Ruhl

By Neena Arndt, Literary Associate
Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s newest work, Stage Kiss, opened at the Goodman last night. Here, the Goodman’s Literary Associate, Neena Arndt, chronicles this young writer’s ascent from an unknown to a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

When Sarah Ruhl was a sophomore at Brown University, she signed up for a course taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. Though she was then an aspiring poet, Ruhl dove headfirst into the class, impressing Vogel with her one-of-a-kind voice—soulful, witty and savagely funny—and eventually altering her aspirations to include writing for the theater. Ruhl went on to study intensively with Vogel, earning an MFA in playwriting from Brown in 2001. Since then the young writer has seen her plays produced nationally and internationally, and has earned accolades including a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a Helen Merrill Award and in 2006 a MacArthur Fellowship; she has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A native of Wilmette, Illinois, Ruhl returns to the Goodman for her third production with Stage Kiss. The Clean House was a highlight of the 2005/2006 Season, and was followed two seasons later by the epic Passion Play. Her other plays include In the Next Room or the vibrator play; Dead Man’s Cell Phone; Demeter in the City; Eurydice; Orlando and Melancholy Play.

It is no accident that three of the above titles include the word “play.” Ruhl’s plays are conscious of being plays. There is no pretense that the worlds she creates are real in any literal sense—rather, they use fantasy and metaphor to plumb very real emotional depths. “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life,” she has said. “Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned. They’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions.” In her plays, blizzards can happen indoors. People can turn into almonds; rocks can talk. And, in the case of Stage Kiss, it can become increasingly unclear whether real life is any more real than what happens onstage.

While Ruhl’s style is stunningly theatrical—the arresting images she conjures offer endless creative possibilities to directors and designers—she has also achieved her teenage aspiration of becoming a poet. Her language is clean and potent, each word precisely chosen. Characters confess their innermost thoughts and feelings, speaking often of their dreams. In Stage Kiss, two characters speak in unison, confessing to the audience that they each have dreamed about the other for years: “I dream that I steal your quilt, your childhood quilt. And it’s a terrible act of betrayal.” Rather than providing subtle clues about a character’s psyche, Ruhl lays bare the impossibly complex yet instantly recognizable inner workings of her characters’ minds.

Although the situations she explores are often tragic, Ruhl traverses heartbreak and pain with sly humor and carefully measured levity. Life, in a Sarah Ruhl play, is simultaneously sublime and awful, uproariously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad. It is, perhaps, this precise balance between tragedy and comedy that has made Ruhl a favorite with audiences worldwide—and that promises to make Stage Kiss a rollicking and thought-provoking experience for audiences here in Chicago.

Photo: Sarah Ruhl (left) and Stage Kiss director Jessica Thebus.Photo by Liz Lauren.

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