Open Stage Theatre presents Asparagus

Running through March 11 at the Open Stage Theatre, Pittsburgh native Jeanne Drennan’s Asparagus asks how much an artist should be willing to sacrifice in the name of art. A play about where to draw the line before ransacking the lives of others, Asparagus won an award at the Gemini Theater’s new play competition.

Protagonist Emily (Judy Kaplan) is a screenwriter who is having trouble writing a new movie script. She finally finds inspiration after a visit from Art (John Gresh), who explains the true story of the murder of his daughter Lisa (Tiffany Hickman). Art wants Lisa’s murder to be made into a TV movie, in order to raise awareness and hopefully catch his daughter’s killer. Emily is at first skeptical about writing the screenplay for Art’s TV movie, but agrees to listen to his story. She ends up incorporating details from the murder into her own movie plot.

As the story continues, Asparagus leads the viewer down several rabbit holes. Emily’s own daughter (Molly, played by Madison Georgi) is at times grafted onto Lisa. The girls shared a common love of ballet, and, at one point, Molly comes close to getting assaulted in a New York City subway. Still, the discriminating viewer will see that Molly’s fencing practice sets her apart as a strong female character able to defend herself. Through Art’s own admission, Molly is the smarter girl.

Although Emily incorporates some of the details of Lisa’s gruesome murder into her screenplay, she keeps it a secret from Art. Here, the audience is asked to rationalize Emily’s behavior as either furthering Art’s cause or betraying his trust. If Asparagus ended here without a resolution, it could be a far stronger play; the audience would be left to decide whether Emily’s actions are ultimately helpful or harmful.

Emily is not a callous offender. Her husband Joe (Tony Bingham), a painter, provides an example of betrayal in Emily’s own life. Joe cheated on Emily once before with one of his models, and Asparagus hints that he may do so again when he goes away to Arizona for six weeks to teach painting.

Right before the screenplay is completed, Emily is fired. This comes at the hands of Barb Phillips (Lori Maxwell), Emily’s friend of nearly 10 years. It is implied in the script that Barb knew that Emily’s employment was in jeopardy; as a result, Emily feels betrayed. “Fuck reality,” says Barb, essentially excusing her own behavior. Emily’s relationship with Barb serves to add an extra dimension of betrayal to the play.

Asparagus’ stage design helped to weave the story together in an interesting fashion. The three-quarter stage setup allowed for actors to enter and exit the performance space from behind the audience; at times, they were close enough to touch. Scenes sometimes occurred two at a time, as one character is telling a story and two others are acting it out. The transitions between scenes were often accompanied by pop music.

The Open Stage Theatre, a venue located in the Strip District, can accommodate intimate audiences of about 100 people as it is set up for Asparagus. Although removed from Carnegie Mellon, the theater is ideal for small productions of local up-and-coming plays.