First comes love, then comes… what?

Newfangled Theatre Company explores complexity of human relationships in absurdist comedy ‘Gary, Helen, and Peter’

Jordan Wagner (left; Gary) and Hanna Stout (right; Helen) pause during a scene in ‘Gary, Helen, and Peter.’

In a dynamic storm of absurdism and comedy, “Gary, Helen, and Peter” by Marc Michaelson and directed by Zach Christensen makes its full-length debut in a one-night only performance 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 26 in the Walsh Studio Theatre.

After seven years of dating, Peter is finally going to ask Helen to marry him at a romantic dinner. Things quickly run amok when Peter’s longtime friend, Gary, confesses his love to Helen.

Normalcy is quickly chucked out the window as the night unfolds, and the relational tumult of the three quickly sweeps in the restaurant’s server and its two patrons.

“Gary, Helen, and Peter” began as a short play in Newfangled’s 7/11 project, an annual event where participants produce seven 11-minute plays over the course of 11 days. After writer Michaelson wrote the original, shorter version of “Gary, Helen, and Peter,” he approached Newfangled to write a full-length play.

“(Michaelson) wanted to submit a full version for the spring show,” explained Zach Christensen, chair of Newfangled Theatre Company and director of “Gary, Helen, and Peter.” “So, we talked about collaborating on having me, who has directed it before, and him, who wrote the original, to come together again to make this full version of the show. There were so many things we could unpack about love, sex, relationships.”

Through the writing and interpretation process, Michaelson and Christensen were able to enlarge and expand on various elements of the original play.

One of the largest areas Christensen wanted to focus on more in the full-length play was the complexity of human relationships in general.

“A big thing we’re trying to do is make it about humans in relationships as opposed to men and women in relationships,” Christensen said. “It’s just about humans in general. We tried to make it very gender neutral, and gender was not a factor in a lot of what was happening, including casting. We just wanted to put people where we felt it would be best, regardless of what gender they identify with.”

The show also asks big questions about what it means to be in a relationship and show affection. For example: Does sex have to be a part of love, or can it be totally different? Is physicality a necessity of love, or is love a necessity of physicality? Can two people show affection for one another without fitting into the social expectations of their gender?  

“It really is just humans loving other humans, whether that love is platonic, whether its friendship, whether it’s lust, love,” said Hanna Stout, who plays Helen. “It’s just about people loving other people.”

Outside of exploring relationships, the show also artistically explores absurdism as a genre. Each second provides a different experience — in the 15 minutes of rehearsal time I saw, there was a tryst, a woman practically having an orgasm on stage, the sudden introduction of someone named Frederico and a funeral.

“We’re pushing boundaries for sure with it because it’s something I don’t think main stage would ever do a show like this,” Christensen said. “I think our main stage does a great job of doing shows that aren’t necessarily done everywhere and telling stories that are important to be heard. But I think the difference is, with a show like this, we’re going a more absurd route with what’s happening within the show.”

The absurdist aspect of the play has given a lot of creative freedom to the cast members. Everyone I spoke to said much the same thing — the process for creating the show was fluid and open to literally any idea.

“I think that opened up a lot of opportunities for us to literally try anything random,” said Scobie Bathie, who plays the role of Server. “There’s a lot of random stuff in this show that just make it 10 times better.”

Stout added: “This is definitely the wildest show I’ve ever been a part of. I’m really excited about that fact because we’ve been able to just throw random s— to the wall and see what sticks. Do all this crazy stuff that you won’t see in 99.99% of plays because it’s just so out there.”

And while using absurdism may contradict the deep messaging the play is trying to convey, Ethan Geisness, another actor in the show who plays Patron #2, clarified this type of play is able “to show these topics we’re passionate about without forcing them down people’s throats.”

At its heart, “Gary, Helen, and Peter” is meant to make audience members escape reality with its hodgepodge of dining room antics, odd waitstaff, jealous lovers and seemingly random diversions from the main plot. 

“I didn’t have any expectations coming into this,” Geisness said, immediately followed by the laughter of his castmates. “I can say it exceeded all of them — more than I could possibly imagine.”

“Gary, Helen, and Peter” is a free, one-night only event at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 26 in the Walsh Studio Theatre.

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