Heroic First Love

By Mikkel Hylderbandt
Photos: Diane Haymes Photography

Out Front Theatre’s next large-scale production is Warplay – a play about first love with epic proportions. Peach spoke to Justin Kalin, who is the director of the play, about how the mythologic references fit in the cultural moment of now. Justin joined the staff at Out Front Theatre Company at the end of their inaugural season as Casting Director and Literary Manager, and he has assumed the position of Associate Artistic Director since the start of their current season.

Warplay by JC Lee is the next large-scale production by Out Front Theatre Company – can you tell us a little bit about the background for the play? 

Warplay was originally commissioned by the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco in 2017, where it received its World Premiere. It was then staged at Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia in fall 2018. According to the playwright in an interview with metro.us news, “I was at the gym in New York, and the movie “Troy” was on, and I remember watching it and seeing all of these shirtless guys and being incredibly bored. I was just like, ‘how can I be this bored with this many beautiful men on screen shirtless fighting with each other’? It just gave me this idea of re-imagining that story, as I think it should be told which is a gay love story but also then tackling this idea about masculinity and performative masculinity, which I think in the culture right now feels especially relevant.”

Photo: Diane Haymes Photography

Warplay is the re-imagining of the love story between Achilles and Patroclus (from Greek mythology) – how does the play fit in the political and cultural moment of now?

I think as JC mentioned in that interview referenced above, the idea of masculinity and how it manifests and is performed is timeless. Achilles and Patroclus are essentially the oldest documented same-sex couple in Western literature (and even then, most historians would argue with that label), and though we may not know the specifics of their relationship, history has given us a lot of context to understand how masculinity was experienced and championed in ancient societies. This play is, at its core, a story about first love. It’s funny, tender, romantic, and vulnerable. But the presence of love between two men is complicated by the performance of masculinity. The play asks us, what does it mean to be a man? And have we challenged or changed those expectations in any meaningful ways over the last few millennia? We see how the pillars of maleness rob men of intimacy and how it affects relationships. We see it in a couple from ancient Greece and we see it in couples today. How do we extract maleness from toxic behaviors? It’s all really purposefully relevant to the world we live in today.

The play – as well as the Greek myth – is a lot about conflicting personalities and how they still manage to find the good in each other. Is that the purposeful message you want to convey with this play?

Absolutely. We’re living in an incredibly divisive time, and with the advent of social media, it’s easier now more than ever to sow discord and distrust. Our differences become evident, and we broadcast them online and argue with those who experience the world differently than we do. I don’t think seeing this play will heal those societal wounds, but producing Warplay has given us an opportunity to reintroduce vulnerability and reconciliation to our community. We see two men who are so diametrically opposed, and despite those differences, they try to grow together. There are successes and failures, but more importantly, there is the decision to lead with love in this play. We want to celebrate those moments on stage and encourage audiences to find the same power within themselves. Love is possible and so, so necessary, especially when it feels like something horrific and inescapable looms ahead.

What were some of the challenges putting on this epic and mythological play?

As is the case with producing any live theatre, there’s always challenges bringing something from the page to the stage. The playwright has given the creative team and audiences a ton to unpack in a tight 70-minute window, so really digging into the material with the actors has been equally challenging and exciting. Creating a war-torn space for two men to fall in love has also been a fun challenge, but one that our brilliant scenic designer, Danyale Taylor, approached with stunning ease and clarity. Seriously, if the poster isn’t enough to get your attention, you’ll wanna come just to see this set!

… and what was a positive surprise?

As corny as it sounds, the entire process has been really positive. I wouldn’t say it’s been surprising, though there have certainly been some surprises along the way, from the first table read to where we are now has been truly collaborative and uplifting. As a director, you’re charged with combing through the script and leading a team of creatives to stage a cohesive vision that honors the playwright’s work. It can be daunting and as this is my first fully staged project with Out Front, there’s a self-imposed pressure to make something really great. I’ve gotten the chance to share my ideas and bring them into reality with the help of the best designers; the entire production is so much greater than anything I initially conceived, and for that, I owe Eric Griffis, Lindsey Sharpless, and Danyale Taylor a tremendous debt. Their collaborative and generous spirits made this play possible. And all the volunteers and additional hands that have supported the theatre and brought the story to life too.

You always work with a vibrant cast and really amazing staging. Who will be taking the leads in the play?

This show will feature two phenomenal actors; the role of A (Achilles) will be played by Greg Piccirilli, who many folks may have seen in 7 Stage’s recent production of Angry Fags, and the role of P (Patroclus) will be played by Andy Stanesic, who audiences may recognize from Out Front’s 2017 Educational Summer production of Zanna, Don’t!

And what can the audience expect from the staging?

The staging of this play is going to be a really dynamic and fresh experience for our audiences. As we grow as a company, we’re constantly finding new ways of reinventing the space so that our audiences can expect something new each show. I think a lot of people expect to see a lot of glitz and glamour and drag on our stage, but this piece is entirely different. It’s darker, dirtier, and sexier; it’s just a totally different and exciting territory that we haven’t much explored in the last few seasons. It’s going to be really intimate, which is no small feat for the size of our space, and atmosphere too. The actors have really taken command of the stage and are going to bring audiences on a journey that’s hilarious and heartbreaking and dare I say, a little tantalizing.

Anything you’d like to add? 

Make sure you’re registered to vote, drink lots of water, always use sunscreen, and come see Warplay at Out Front Theatre Company! Who knows, if you’re in the audience you may find yourself with some insider knowledge as to what we’re planning to produce in Season 5. We’ll be hosting our season reveal event at TEN Atlanta on April 1st, so join us for that as well.

Warplay by JC Lee will be playing March 12-28 at Out Front Theatre Company. Tickets ($15 and up) are available at OutFrontTheatre.com.

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