Asked to describe playwright Kira Obolensky, her friend and former teacher Bill Corbett fumbles for an answer. "She's thin, blond, um, glasses. Energetic. She has a quicksilver mind. She's very imaginative." Corbett pauses. "Well, I'm not sure if I'm describing her or her work now." Finally he adds, "She's a pretty woman. Make sure she knows I said that."
Sweet talk from a man who once sent Obolensky, via e-mail and fax, a notable series of caustic letters, urging her to respond in kind. In one letter Corbett wrote, "It is my fervent hope that at the end of these three days, I will miss you. Right now, I believe you are a horrible shrew." Withering words, and just a few of the thousands of similarly bilious sentiments Corbett directed at Obolensky over a six-month period in 1995. Obolensky was delighted by the letters. "I couldn't wait to go to my fax and see what Bill had written," she recalls. "The challenge was to write back to him and to try and be equally petty and trivial."
The letters were a lark, of course; Corbett, a fellow playwright and actor who's probably best known for his work on the locally produced Mystery Science Theater 3000, had attended a production of A.R. Gurney's cloying (but seemingly eternally popular) Love Letters, an epistolary series of monologues between two lonely pen pals. Struck by a perversely comic inspiration of the sort that seems to strike him with alarming frequency (samples can be found on the Internet at www.timmybighands.com, which Corbett co-writes with fellow MST3K alumni Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy), he sat down and composed a letter complaining about the purchase of an imagined snow globe. He faxed the letter to Obolensky, who'd been a student of his at the Playwrights' Center. "Certainly, I recognize the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty," he wrote, "but this diorama implies that these two structures are in fact the same height." The series of bitter letters that ensued formed the basis for a collaborative effort entitled Hate Mail, which debuted at Minneapolis's the Eye of the Storm Theatre in 1996 and will return in February along with a second Corbett play, Heckler.
In the intervening half-decade, Obolensky has risen to national prominence--most notably with Lobster Alice, which debuted at the Jungle Theater a year before opening at the Playwrights' Horizons in Manhattan, and The Adventures of Herculina, which the Frank Theatre company opened last week at the Southern Theater.
Corbett credits the 38-year-old playwright's ascendant national reputation to "the premises she comes up with." Lobster Alice, for example, was a romantic fantasia based on the true story of Salvador Dali's brief tenure as a designer for Walt Disney Studios, while Herculina tells the semifictionalized story of a young romantic of indeterminate gender whose search for love leads to corrupting, byzantine adventures in Victorian Paris.
"Other playwrights would die for that imagination," says Corbett. "She pulls [her premises] off in a great combination of poetry and silliness."
While Corbett might fumble in trying to describe Obolensky, he is quick to note her love of pierogi. In fact Wendy Knox of the Frank Theatre, who is directing Herculina, also brings up the Eastern European dumplings. "Sometimes she takes me to a church in northeastern Minneapolis where they serve pierogis every Friday," Knox says.
Obolensky sighs when she hears this. "I indulge in pierogis," she confesses. Some years ago, she explains, she was asked to help create a small exhibit about the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and she has been returning for the church's weekly lunch ever since. She even volunteered for a while, assisting in making the delicacies. "The ladies who make pierogis line up around long tables with handkerchiefs around their head," Obolensky remembers. "I would go on Fridays and sit with the ladies and learn how to pinch the pierogis shut."
This anecdote would be interesting but incidental, were it not for the fact that so much about Obolensky seems likewise interesting but incidental. There is, for example, her coauthorship with architect Sarah Susanka of the bestseller The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, a fully illustrated coffee-table hardback offering decorating tips for people who live in homes that are more modest than those found in glossy architectural magazines. While Obolensky says Susanka "was really the source of the ideas in the book," the project has spun off into a new book that seems, well, more essentially Obolenskyesque: a coffee-table book on garages, "with many beautiful photographs," Obolensky notes, laughing. "It's about interesting things that happen in garages. Garage bands. Inventions in garages--you know that the Apple computer was invented in a garage. Disney started in a garage. There are chapters on murder-suicides and sexual peccadilloes in garages."
Then there's the story of Obolensky's decision to be a playwright, which seems almost too good to be true: After moving to the Twin Cities in the mid-Eighties (having spent her childhood in New York and Dallas), she spontaneously enrolled in classes at the Playwrights' Center in 1989, after seeing JoAnne Akalaitis's production of Jean Genet's The Screens at the Guthrie Theater. Three years later she was a Jerome Fellow at the center. Two years after that she was a playwright-in-residence at the Juilliard School in New York City. Despite a lifetime interest in the arts--she'd played violin in school and got a degree in visual arts from Williams College--her only prior experience as a playwright had been limited to writing the family's Christmas plays when she was a little girl. ("They weren't so exciting," she recalls, "although one year we wrapped the dog up in a box.")