TheatreWorks' New Works Festival is always a summer treat for theater lovers, giving audiences a peek at new plays in progress. This year's lineup offers six works (including a musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes," the graphic-novel-based "The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga" and the Pablo Neruda-inspired "I Enter the Valley") that range from historical drama to rock opera.
Festival veteran Rajiv Joseph (who will also give the keynote speech) returns this year with "Archduke." The play centers around the plot to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose death in Bosnia at the hands of Serbian nationalists in 1914 set off the First World War. While the assassination eventually led to that massive global conflict, Joseph said none of the radicalized conspirators had any idea the ramifications their actions would have on the wider world.
"Not in anyone's wildest dreams did they imagine they would be sparking a world war. The kind of domino effect it had, it's almost absurd. It's with that absurdity that I'm taking the play," he said. And though the subject matter is deadly serious, "in many ways it's a comedy, about a bunch of very inept incompetent men who stumble upon this cataclysm."
The plot to murder the archduke was carried out by several young, poverty-stricken men who were diagnosed with tuberculosis -- a death sentence at that time.
"They're swept up by this man who's using them as his soldiers, installing in them this idea that, if you're going to die soon why not make your life mean something?" Joseph said.
He sees the conflict as the crucial tipping point that transitioned the 19th century into the 20th and noted that, in 2016, we may be reaching that point again in the new millennium.
"If it's true, we're in the midst of that again now," he said. "I do think it's worth examining that it doesn't take brains to change the world if you're changing it through violence. If you look at today, the expansion and insurgency of ISIS and al Qaeda is preying on the same types of individuals: young men who are impoverished, with no hope of upward mobility."
"Archduke" will be directed by Giovanna Sardelli (who's also the festival director), a big fan of Joseph's work.
"If Rajiv writes something on a napkin I want to do it," she joked.
"While it's placed a century ago, it also has a contemporary feel to it," she said of the play. "It has mischief ... dark humor in the tone and a beauty to the writing that really speaks to the fear and lack of purpose in the characters."
The play gives a voice to people largely forgotten by history.
"You don't want to glamorize these individuals but you do want to humanize them," Sardelli said. "I think it's very brave to actually say, 'I want to create characters that you have complicated relationships to.'"
More fanciful but also rooted in history is "Gravity: a New(tonian) Musical," a romantic sci-fi comedy featuring young Isaac Newton on the brink of making his groundbreaking scientific discoveries and Sophie, a modern physicist who travels back to the Enlightenment age and upsets the timeline of history and science in the process. The show, by Ken Savage, Joel Chapman, Weston Gaylord, Matt Herrero and Jessia Hoffman, got its start in a Stanford University musical-writing competition and offers a feminist perspective, exploring the challenges female scientists face in gaining recognition and opportunities, both in the past and in the modern world.
"Though progress has been made, there is definitely work to be done to give female voices empowering opportunities to share their point of view with their colleagues and influence the advancement of science and knowledge," Savage said.
He described the music of "Gravity" as ranging in style from "acoustic-guitar singer-songwriter freestyle to Gaga-esque dance pop to contemporary a cappella and musical theater" and said that while he and his fellow Stanford alums have worked together before, this show represents their first joint musical-writing effort.
"World-building, bending rules, and exploding the personalities of famous historical figures has been an absolute joy," he said. "It's a gift to work with people you trust and whose taste you respect."
Another close-knit team of writers created the musical "Eddie the Marvelous, Who Will Save the World." Married couple Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses, who also write and perform around the Bay Area as the rock-band The Kilbanes, came up with the story of Eddie, a young man with a host of mental-health issues who lives an isolated existence. While his outer world is restricted, he has a rich inner life.
"Eddie draws from small, mundane moments in his life and recreates them as epic battles in an intergalactic rock opera, starring a Ziggy-Stardust-inspired version of himself, called 'Eddie the Marvelous,' who is always victorious, no matter the odds," Kilbane explained. The character was inspired by a conversation she had with a friend over how excruciating young adulthood can be, and soon the idea to combine a straight-play storyline about Eddie with rock-opera sequences (with music inspired by artists such as David Bowie and Queen) struck.
"Dan has always loved rock from the '70s ... and my enthusiasm for 'Ziggy Stardust' knows no bounds, so this seemed like a great opportunity to let those artists inspire us," she said.
Though she's known on the local indie-music scene as a songwriter, guitarist and bassist, Kilbane has a background in musical theater, training as a director and dramaturg and earning a master's degree in performance studies from New York University. In 2008, she created the one-character rock opera "The Medea Cycle," based on ancient Greek mythology, and in 2009 she and Moses began work on the four-character musical "Weightless."
"Now we've written 'Eddie,' which has a whole stage play inside a rock opera," she said, "so I found my way back to the theater quite accidentally, bringing my masters-in-jazz-performance-had-barely-set-foot-in-a-theater husband with me, and we couldn't be happier."
What: TheatreWorks' New Works Festival
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Aug. 12-21; check online for complete schedule
Cost: $19-$65 (individual tickets and festival passes available)
Info: Go to New Works Festival