Salt Lake theater stages romantic comedy about academic politics

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Salt Lake Tribune – Ellen Fagg West

For Tamara Howell, her night job portraying a crazy-smart academic in Pygmalion Productions’ premiere of “Remington & Weasel” is spilling over into her day job teaching junior high theater.

Just this week, Howell borrowed her character’s explanation of Goethe’s questions of critical analysis in her classroom. But Howell laughs when she admits she won’t continue the lesson as outlined by her character, Chris Remington — who, after giving the lecture, directs her students to rip up their notes. The incident becomes known around the Internet as a T-NABS protest: “These. Notes. Are. Bull. Shit,” a young journalist explains.

When that protest is captured on a student’s “smarty pants” phone and goes viral, Remington’s adjunct position — and even her complicated relationship with Alex Weedle (Andra Harbold), a colleague whom Remington refers to as “Weasel” because she happens to represent authority as the dean’s partner — is in jeopardy.

Pygmalion Productions, Salt Lake City’s womancentric theater company, will present a premiere of Utah playwright L.L. West’s “Remington & Weasel.” The production opens Friday, April 22, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

The script enjoys skewering rogue academics, as it’s filled with insider gags about the self-importance of film theory and theater educators. West is a local director and a retired theater professor who describes his career bouncing around a handful of colleges, including adjunct stints at the University of Utah and Weber State. “There’s some of me in there,” West says, “but I don’t think I was quite as self-destructive as Chris tends to be.”

Beyond its jabs at institutions, “Remington & Weasel” offers contemporary pleasures in how the script examines the viral nature of Internet postings.

Such issues aside, at its heart, “Remington and Weasel” is mostly a love story. “I think it’s about these relationships and what came before,” says director Robin Wilkes-Dunn. “You see two close friends who end up on opposite sides of what is in many ways is a lose-lose situation because of social media and politics.”

The play’s backstory offers another interesting twist. West started the project by challenging himself to write a screwball comedy, peopled with endearing, flawed characters and snappy dialogue, inspired by his favorite classic films such as “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Adam’s Rib” and “Brief Encounter.”

As he was writing, West happened to attend a holiday dinner party with longtime friends, a gay couple, and the seeming normalcy of their relationship inspired another turn.

He gave himself the challenge to craft the story with gender-neutral characters. Depending on the director’s casting decisions, Chris Remington and Alex Weedle could be played by male or female actors. The script employs few pronouns and unisex names, which means this romantic comedy could involve straight, gay or lesbian characters.

In Pygmalion’s workshop of the play last year, West and Wilks-Dunn experimented with four combinations of male and female actors. “The language is gender-neutral, but our feelings, our empathy about the characters, changed a lot with the actors’ gender,” the director says.

Wilks-Dunn cast female actors in the lead roles for Pygmalion’s premiere run, in keeping with the company’s mission of telling stories about women. This run of the story focuses on female academic colleagues whose past relationship, however murky, causes problems. “I like to imagine they are the type of friends who like to get in trouble together,” Harbold says. Or maybe a “once renegade duo out of a Western.”

But speaking West’s rapid-fire dialogue and making it sound natural — dialogue, that is, written without the aid of gendered pronouns — has proven to be a bit of challenge. “You have to be very nimble” is how Howell describes it.

Howell describes her character as a strong woman with a superiority complex, notable for her aggressive attempts to flout institutional rules. Chris Remington likes to assume she’s the smartest person in any room, and most often she’s right. But intellectual firepower can’t save the character from her self-destructive impulses.

Alex has chosen a stable relationship, Harbold says, and re-encountering Remington’s shoot-from-the-hip creative teaching style causes her to reconsider her loyalties.

Also notable are the voices of the play’s three student roles, which Pygmalion artistic director Fran Pruyn says reveal how much time West spent listening to students.