A new play by PURE Theatre looks at men and their words 

Tough Talk

Sheep's Clothing
A premiere by PURE Theatre
April 30, May 1, 7-9, 14-15, 7:30 p.m.
May 10, 2 p.m.
$30
Circular Congregational Church, Lance Hall
150 Meeting St.
(843) 723-4444
www.puretheatre.org

Novelty comes at a cost. Especially in theater. The expense of developing, rehearsing, producing, and promoting a brand-new show that may end up being a commercial flop is enough to deter most investors and keep theater management knee-deep in revivals.

The irony is that the bigger the theater company, the less likely it is to embrace novelty. A smaller scale allows for more risk-tolerance, though the risk remains. Just because the bath you're taking is relatively small doesn't negate the fact that you're taking a bath.

In light of this comes the opening of a new play called Sheep's Clothing, directed by Sharon Graci and written by Spencer Deering, a Charleston playwright. It was developed by PURE Lab, the workshopping arm of PURE Theatre. After about a year and a half of blood, sweat, and tears, the play premieres as part of the 2008-2009 mainstage series.

"When theater works, it's better than any other art form," Deering says during a phone interview. "I defy anyone to argue with that. When a play comes together and everything is in its right place, the power you feel is transformative."

But getting there is tough, and maybe tougher than it needs to be.

About a year ago, Mike Daisey staged a one-man show in New York called How Theater Failed America. The acclaimed monologuist made the case that regional theater sucks, because it aims for business more than art.

Regional theater typically obsesses over growth, Daisey claimed, focusing on building bigger buildings more than developing better actors. It caters to the wealthy, marketing itself like a luxury item. And it relies too much on importing actors from New York.

Daisey, who is a 2005 Spoleto Festival alum, wasn't saying anything really new, except this: that the usual problems regional theaters cite as their main obstacles — such as competition from movies and television, drained government subsidies, strained philanthropic communities, and audiences that just don't get it — are basically hokum.

None of that would matter, Daisey argued in his play, if the focus were on actors and playwriting, not business. In How Theater Failed America, Daisey calls for a return to the repertory model in which a dedicated group of actors hones its skills and creates new work. That means an acting troupe that's smaller, leaner, and more aggressive artistically. If that sounds like a description of PURE Theatre, that's because it is.

Sheep's Clothing follows four close friends who have built happy lives as high school football coaches. But the dynamics of power shift with the discovery of an athlete's affair with a female math teacher. The coaches, especially Luggs (played by Paul Whitty), face accusations by a female principal, and soon realize their locker room paradise is in jeopardy. More than that, Sheep's Clothing is about the way men communicate — with bravado and a veiled kind of macho vulnerability — in the absence of women.

"These guys feel like dinosaurs," Deering says. "Especially Luggs. He's a really smart guy and prototypical football coach who's more than happy to live in his own medieval world. He and the others used to be a part of the power structure. They used to feel like this was their school. They love what they do, but now they have to face all this change.

"I like how language works," Deering adds. "I'm fascinated with rhetoric and how and why we say things the way we say them. This play is about guys sitting around a locker room talking shit with each other in the way that guys do in locker rooms. There's nothing snarky about it. We talk differently with each other than we do with women or when women are in the room. Meanwhile the principle has the real power. I wanted to explore what's behind it all."

PURE Theatre plans to reprise Sheep's Clothing during Piccolo Spoleto, along with three other shows, including a new never-before-seen work about a "gentleman pirate" by co-founder Rodney Lee Rogers.


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