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.")
So how is it that a woman sees a single play at age 27 and is so inspired that she spends the next decade forging a career in the field?
The play itself certainly deserves some of the credit. Akalaitis's direction of Genet's script was a sprawling, unconfined, five-hour eruption of theatrical imagination that calls to mind the famous myth of the Velvet Underground--only a thousand people ever saw them play, but every one of them went out and formed a band. As is typical of Akalaitis, she crowded the stage with ideas and dazzling visuals, creating a production thick with atmosphere: Incense burned, Middle Eastern music played from a live band of men holding ouds and hiding their faces under shawls, and performers whose characters had died in the play skittered above the audience on a giant net. This was an immense vision of the possibilities of theater, and to somebody like Obolensky, who herself possesses an unconfined imagination, it was irresistible.
But beyond that, as evidenced by Obolensky's wildly varied résumé, this is a woman who develops sudden passions and pursues them with enormous energy, whether they be anecdotal histories of American garages, five-hour plays, or pierogi. And while Obolensky's plays are not autobiographical, a hint of this same spirit echoes through her work. In Lobster Alice the protagonist's life is utterly transformed, without his willing it, by his exposure to the limitless creativity of Salvador Dali. In reviewing the play for City Pages last fall, Peter Ritter wrote that the "floodgates of imagination and desire have burst"--a neat summation of Obolensky's own explosive creativity.
And that brings us to The Adventures of Herculina, a play about a young girl in a French convent who dreams of South America, and whose own life is transformed forever by a sudden, unexpected love, as well as by the revelation that she may in fact be a young man.
"The seeds of this play were sown in a weekend workshop with Paula Vogel," Obolensky explains. Vogel, a playwright known for wild, off-kilter comedies about incest (How I Learned to Drive) and AIDS (The Baltimore Waltz), had instructed participants to write a monologue from the point of view of a character of indeterminate gender. Afterward Obolensky looked into writing a fuller script based on the suggestion. "I was fascinated by this idea," she says. At first she looked into the life of an obscure doctor who performed sex-change operations in the 1940s, but her research eventually led her to the diaries of Herculine Barbin, a hermaphrodite who was declared female at her birth in France in 1838 but who, doctors later determined, was actually male. ("Apparently there was some confusion," Obolensky wryly notes in the introduction to her script.) "Reading this diary was so dramatic and theatrical," the playwright declares. "Plays start with questions, and this made me think about a lot of them."
Obolensky fictionalized the story, setting it in the Victorian period. "It was an era of classification, and ends of centuries are so interesting and perilous," she explains. "History gives you a wonderful window; I find it an interesting lens to examine many questions." Primary among these, she says, is this: "How do you love someone forever when you're constantly changing and your partner is constantly changing?"
Herculina, which had its premiere at Chicago's Next Theater last year, raises its questions in a manner reminiscent of a children's story: The script is filled with sullen boys, stern abbesses, and violent jugglers (not to mention a cameo appearance by Dame Sarah Bernhardt), in settings such as railroad yards and carnivals. The play is neither strident nor preachy. Instead it simply allows its narrative to grow curious--the characters often seem utterly bewildered by one another--and to encourage the curiosity of its audience. "It's a messy whirlwind," Obolensky sums up. "That whirling kind of innocence that gets corrupted quite terribly, and twists quite suddenly."
Obolensky describes an early production of the work, directed by the illustrious Christopher Durang, in which several of the female roles were played by a transgender performer who had previously been a man. "There is a scene where the performer played Sarah Bernhardt and had to teach Herculina how to kiss like a man, and the role of Herculina was also played by a man," she recounts. She's quiet for a moment, obviously deep in thought. "Think about how many questions that raised!" she says at last.