Quirky "House of Blue Leaves" Opens in South Camden
I had last talked with Joe Paprzycki at the start of South Camden Theatre Company's 10th season. At that time, the producing artistic director gave me a brief history of the theatre and told me about the inspiration that drove the project, the connection of place to place (the theater is in the building where his family’s bar once stood) and the people who helped make dreams into reality. When we spoke recently, our conversation was primarily about the current season and the upcoming production of “House of Blue Leaves,” opening on Friday, January 15 and running through January 31.
Written by Irish-American playwright John Guare, “House of Blue Leaves” is a quirky black comedy set in Queens, New York on the day of Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York City in 1965. The main characters include a Vietnam-bound GI—a zookeeper with aspirations to score big as a Hollywood tunesmith; his wife, Bananas (who IS a bit bananas); and his mistress, Bunny.
The play was originally produced off-Broadway in 1971, where it won Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play and the Obie Award for Best American Play. The Broadway revival opened in April 1986, ran for 398 performances and was nominated for the 1986 Tony Award for Best Play. Then,in 1987, lead actors including Swoozie Kurtz and John Mahoney recreated their stage roles for a PBS “American Playhouse” special.
Paprzycki saw it on stage and on TV and he loved it. To his knowledge, “House of Blue Leaves” has been produced locally only once before. But he’s known for a while that he wanted to bring it to SCTC.
“It is a really great piece of theatre,” he said. “The story is funny – VERY funny – and, at the same time, it’s serious.
“The actors do an amazing job of finding a balance,” he said. “One minute things feel a little off-kilter, and the next moment, the seriousness emerges.
“If I had to identify a central theme,” he said, “I would say that it’s about people who want to get somewhere, but who are struggling.”
Paprzycki paused at this point to remind me that he is “just the producer,” and suggested I should talk with the director, Susan Jami Paschkes, to get to the heart of this production.
So, I did.
Paschkes, who is an actor as well as a director, has been involved with the South Camden Theatre Company for about four years. She serves on the Board of Trustees, and is part of a community initiative to develop a practical theatre arts program for Camden children. She previously starred as Josie Hogan in the theatre’s production of “Moon for the Misbegotten,” but this play is her directing debut for SCTC.
Paschkes was not that familiar with the play, but it took no time for the story to capture her attention.
“I was immediately drawn to it,” she said. “I think it fascinated me because it is so rich in imagery, and because there seemed to be so many ways to explore the material.”
Unlike so many stories, Paschkes explained, the lead characters in “House of Blue Leaves” are not clearly defined as a protagonist or an antagonist.
“Everyone wears both a white hat and a black hat,” she said. “Like in real life, people are a mix of dark and light.”
And, as the director, Paschkes was tasked to choose what to reveal – and how to show it.
“Do we treat it as a dark comedy or a light drama; realism or absurdity? This dynamic keeps everyone on their toes,” she said.
The format of the play is also somewhat unconventional, Paschkes told me.
“In many parts, the actors address the audience directly,” she said. “There is less dialogue and more monologue. The path for the actors is different.
"And, the play has key areas that open the door to very disparate interpretations, and because of that, I chose to approach directing it without a crystal clear vision,” she said.
“It’s been much more of a collaborative work.”
Paschkes knows several members of the cast from other productions, and one cast member, Josh McLucas, was an assistant director for the theatre’s production “Charlie Victor Romeo.” But aside from that, no one in “House of Blue Leaves” has performed previously at SCTC.
Paschkes is delighted by this.
“I’m excited to create new connections,” she said. “I hope that many of the actors return to work with us again.”
When I asked Paschkes about the audience reaction to a play like this – with a complex, if not improbable, story; multi-dimensional characters; and a pretty wacky view of the world – she didn’t miss a beat.
“Granted, the play is challenging. It is not neutral. It is not light,” she said. “But it is a beautiful story. And it is funny.”
And Paschkes has faith in the SCTC audience.
“We have established a solid reputation,” she told me. “Our audience comes back again and again because they know that the quality of the work will be good.”
“Even though this play is not that well known,” she admits, “I am not concerned about it being well received.
“Our audience is prepared for the unexpected when they come to see a show at our theatre,” continued Paschkes. “I think this play will satisfy them.”
“House of Blue Leaves” will be presented on Fridays and Saturdays, January 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, and 30, at 8:00 p.m., and on Sundays, January 17, 24, and 31 at 2:00 p.m. The South Camden Theatre Company is located at 400 Jasper Street, Camden, NJ, 08104.