Summer Guide: Lisa D'Amour's Motor City Bayou

First new trees, then off to Detroit for the wide-ranging playwright. Plus, summer theater picks.

If playwright Lisa D’Amour didn’t seem such a sane and affable woman, you’d be tempted to diagnose her with schizophrenia. What other theater artist manages such a maniacally varied career? Even while D’Amour prepares for the fall opening of her first Broadway show, Detroit, she and her longtime collaborator, director Katie Pearl, are readying an enormous art installation, How to Build a Forest, which will premiere at the Kitchen on June 17. She’s also rehearsing a chamber opera, making a piece for a botanical garden, and honing a commission for Chicago’s Steppenwolf, which premiered Detroit last year.

“It sort of dawned on me recently that there aren’t that many people like me,” D’Amour says over brunch at a Williamsburg taqueria. “It can be a little crazy-making. This year, I have the biggest commercial thing I’ve ever had in my life and maybe the biggest project I’ve ever worked on with Katie.”

Detroit, recently named a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, stands as the most conventional play D’Amour has yet produced. A naturalistic drama for five characters, it takes place in the backyards of adjoining suburban houses and concerns two couples in financial free fall. On the surface, it has perilously little in common with her previous plays, deliciously baroque pieces of magical realism such as Red Death and 16 Spells to Charm the Beast. Nor does it resemble her collaborations with Pearl, the last of which, Terrible Things, involved parallel universes and thousands of marshmallows.

D’Amour isn’t sure how she chanced on such a seemingly normal script. “It was one of these plays that kind of came out whole,” she says. But even in Detroit, her delicately cracked sensibilities permeate the familiar. Characters describe fantastical dreams, a barbecue turns dangerously antic, streets have names such as Feather Boulevard and Ultraviolet Lane. “And if you look at the language, it’s super quirky,” she says. “It has its own poetics.”

Though most writers would leap at the chance for fame—not to mention solvency—D’Amour initially resisted a Broadway move. “I don’t identify myself as mainstream Broadway,” she says. “I worried it would feel like clothes that didn’t fit right.” But colleagues at Steppenwolf, including the play’s director, Austin Pendleton, stepped in to “calm me down” and convince her.

She took far less convincing to begin work on How to Build a Forest, a piece inspired by Hurricane Katrina’s effect on her family’s property, called L’Esperance, where, in less than an hour, winds shattered, uprooted, and snapped more than 100 trees. How to Build a Forest serves as a kind of installation-art solace, a way to re-create those lost woods—though out of some very unnatural materials.

Every day, for eight hours, D’Amour, Pearl, New Orleans artist Shawn Hall, and a crew will assemble and then disassemble 100 fabric trees. “They’re mostly plastic,” says D’Amour. “There’s a lot of polyester—and they’re toxic because everything in the theater has to be fireproofed.” Audiences can leave and return at any time—observing passively, carrying out assigned tasks, or taking self-guided tours through the forest and outside to its Chelsea environs.

In fact, environment is the thing that D’Amour believes joins together her highly disparate oeuvre, even environments as dissimilar as Detroit suburb and Louisiana bayou. “When I look to the work,” she says, “the connection is place and landscape—that’s a constant.”

‘How to Build a Forest,’ June 17 to June 26, the Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, thekitchen.org

Summer Theater Picks

The Comic Book Theater Festival
Performances begin June 2
This summer, the Brick Theater offers several strip shows—but not the kind that will irk the vice squad. Yes, the Comic Theater Festival features graphic plays, those drawn from comics and zines. Offerings include Action Philosophers on Stage!, which stars Nietzsche as “the original übermensch”; Batz, an indie theater-–inspired reworking of Batman; The Deep, a dance theater piece spurred by ’70s French adventure comics; and Spaceship Alexandria, which concerns a floating library. The Brick, 575 Metropolitan Avenue, Williamsburg, bricktheater.com

‘Summerworks’
Performances begin June 5
Constants of summer in the city: sweat, melting asphalt, spurting hydrants, that Mister Softee jingle, and, courtesy of Clubbed Thumb, a slurry of provocative new plays. At this year’s Summerworks, which has moved from the sweltering Ohio to the deliciously air-conditioned Here Arts Center, Tanya Saracho conjures hoodoo and voodoo in Enfrascada; Kristin Newbom and W. David Hancock reveal searing sibling rivalry in Our Lot; and Jason Grote serves a sizzling helping of Civilization (All You Can Eat), which features a giant pig. Here Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, clubbedthumb.org

Shakespeare in the Park
Performances begin June 6
What’s your problem? Well, Shakespeare in the Park has a couple of them: Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Based on the success of last summer’s season, the Public Theater’s plein-air program will run these problem plays in repertory. The first concerns a duke with designs on a nun, the second a commoner who yearns for a count. The cast for these class acts includes Annie Parisse, Danai Gurira, Andre Holland, and John Cullum. Delacorte Theater, Central Park, shakespeareinthepark.org

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