Playwriting cannot be taught. Anybody who tells you different is just trying to sell you snake oil ... or, perhaps, an MFA in playwriting. It's like singing -- you've either got the talent or you don't. And a playwright's most essential talent is vision and voice -- a view of the world unlike anybody else's and the ability to make others see it.
Amy Hartman in a playwright. Amy Hartman, in fact, is an amazing playwright. When you're seeing a Hartman play you know it: beautifully (and painfully) flawed characters so desperately in need of love they warp the world around them.
The Unseam'd Shakespeare Company presents the premiere of Hartman's Mad Honey, and it's just an open wound, a lonely howl of a play. Apparently, in Homer's Iliad, there's a mention of sailors eating some drugged-up honey and then flipping out. Hartman uses that to spin out her wild tale of an extraordinarily dysfunctional family in New Hope, Pa., living through 15 years of secrecy and sorrow and two hours of a raging roller-coaster ride.
As a rule, Hartman doesn't write "plot" shows, i.e. meticulously crafted clockworks about who did what and when and why. What's odd then about Mad Honey is that it's such a plot-heavy show -- so much stuff happens here, and a lot of it don't add up. The end feels very much like Hartman realized the curtain was coming down, so she crammed the last 20 minutes with an enormous amount of new information, events and set pieces.
But I suppose that's by design. This first draft is just Hartman throwing it all up against the wall and seeing what sticks. It's a process a lot of playwrights go through: Hear it out loud and then decide what stays and goes. I strongly advise her to run through the play with a machete, cutting out all the extraneous material that's keeping her audience at a distance from her work.
Director Robin Walsh has done a solid job plunging her actors (and us!) into the world of the play, getting it "up on its feet" and allowing Hartman to see what she's written. I would have preferred a more uniform playing style from the cast: Laurie Klatscher, Paul Ford, Autumn Ayers, Matt McNear and Maggie Ryan. While all of them are quite good, not all of them appear to be in the same play.
To tell the truth, I'm not sure even Hartman knows what the "real" play is living inside Mad Honey. But watching her figure it out sure is entertaining.
Mad Honey continues through July 17. Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning., 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.unseamd.com