So these two cavemen talk turkey in a history museum. … It sounds like the beginning of a good joke.
Actually, it's the opening scene of Madeleine George's “academic sex comedy,” “Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England.” George is an up-and-coming playwright, and this little gem is her nod to the weird worlds of academia and Small Town, U.S.A.
The American Stage production is directed by Karla Hartley and opens for previews tonight.
George's hometown of Amherst, Mass., inspired the setting. Her characters include Cindy Wreen, the university's dean, her young lover, Andromeda, and her ex-partner, Greer. Dean Wreen is charged with the task of closing the natural history museum, which is a fiscal drain on the college. While she deals with the resulting backlash, Wreen also contends with cancer, jealousy and increasingly complicated relationships.
Meanwhile, behind the museum exhibits' Plexiglass walls, two prehistoric figures chat like contemporary 18-year-olds. It's an ironic twist on the question of who is really on display.
The play's premise is a wildly offbeat feat of imagination that George attributed to simply shutting up.
“I wrote the first draft at a silent playwriting retreat,” George said. “It's a tradition that a couple of playwrights and I have put together. We live and work in silence in some remote location. It seems bizarre, like what monks would do. But the talk and sounds of characters running at the mouth, which are a playwright's bread and butter, flourish. There's a lot of talk in the play … that was unleashed because it was written in silence.”
This stillness also kicked George's memory into overdrive. She recalled life in a small college town, the political conflicts, the microcosmic passions. And there really was a natural history museum at Amherst that closed, though it was later moved into a better building.
“To me, it was like a magical temple of ancient miracles,” George said.
Then she remembered the gulf dividing idealistic academics and realistic administrators.
“I know a lot of people who started out wanting to change scholarship and discover the meaning of literature and the world. But they ended up getting a better job, which is being an administrator and which is the opposite of rippling changes in the world. It's more about battening down the hatches. It can be a heartbreaking transition for some. It's the idea of becoming preserved, in a way,” said George.
Then George drew on her love of “Friends,” her favorite sitcom. Some of that show's zaniness and on-and-off couplings worked their way in.
“[The play] takes its cue from sitcoms, even thought it sounds arcane being about academics and museums. It has common sitcom situations: a love triangle, people forming alliances against each other. It has an awkward threesome trying to figure out how to stay together, how to incorporate the new with the old,” George said.
By some miracle, George found the common ground between prehistory, academia and modernity. Plus, there is one solid, irrefutable fact that justifies the crazy title and seemingly disparate elements.
'7 HOMELESS MAMMOTHS WANDER NEW ENGLAND'
When: through June 30; 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: American Stage Theatre Company at the Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg
Tickets: $29-$59, depending on date and time of performance; call (727) 823-7529 and