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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Q&A: Sinan Ünel discusses 'Mad Person'

Sinan Ünel

Sinan Ünel’s play A Mad Person’s Chronicle of a Miserable Marriageabout the tumultuous marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, narrated by one "mad" actor (John Andert) who portrays both characters – just finished a successful weekend at Whaler’s Wharf (produced by Counter Productions) in Provincetown, and beginning on November 6, will settle in for a run at Stage Left Studio in New York City. In the interim, Sinan answered a few questions about the project…and offered a glimpse of his current project. (And yes, this space will certainly feature a follow-up with Sinan about that play, too.)

KAM: Mad Person was originally produced in 1995. Are you evolving the script at all this time around?

SÜ: Actually, no. The script has not changed very much at all. Just a few small changes. The direction has changed quite a bit and the performance as well. John and I are both a lot more mature!

KAM: Mad Person is a one person play. What are the challenges inherent to writing for a single performer?  

SÜ: I’m generally not a fan of one-person plays. They often make me groan and complain. It’s hard to activate them and they tend to be self-indulgent. This is the only one-person play I’ve written. I think I tackled it because the idea of this incredibly tumultuous marriage reflected as one person’s psychosis interested me. Because I’ve always thought activating them is an inherent problem in one-person plays, I was very mindful to keep this as active and engaging as possible. 

The conceit is that an actor (or “mad person”) challenges and embodies both Sonya and Leo. Both Sonya and Leo have been invited to spend a week in our city, in our time. They are really here to speak to the audience, which makes it more active. Also they both WANT something from the audience. They’re both actively trying to figure out the questions regarding their own lives, and questions about what’s happened to the world in almost a century. It’s not a straightforward biographical narrative, which a lot of one person shows tend to be. There’s a lot more going on. The piece is dramatic but John’s performance hits upon a lot of humor and that’s lovely.

KAM: The Tolstoys – or at least references to them – have shown up in your work before (your screenplay The Prophet’s Wife, a ten-minute play, the title of your play Tolstoy’s Den). What is it about this couple that inspires you so?

SÜ: Many years ago I was reading Tolstoy a lot and ran across some of his bios and became interested in his marriage. I was looking for material (I’d already written the “family” play, and the “love” play, which, I guess are the standard plays most young playwrights tackle early in their careers) and was searching for material “outside of myself.” 

There’s an abundance of research material about the Tolstoys – particularly their personal diaries that they both kept compulsively throughout their lives. The people who surrounded them kept notes as well. Many of the problems in the marriage stemmed from Tolstoy’s struggle with mortality and religion, and his effort to resolve them. This particular philosophical quest, and Sonya’s reaction to it interested me very much. 

So I guess the answer to the question is: the material was there, and it was intriguing. First I wrote the screenplay, The Prophet’s Wife, then this little experiment, then a ten minute play to submit to the Boston Theater Marathon. Tolstoy’s Den has almost nothing to do with Tolstoy – it’s about a woman suffering from AIDS. The title is drawn from a quote by Gorky: “Tolstoy and God were like two bears in a den.”

KAM: What’s it like working with your spouse? I know this play is one of many collaborations for you and John, but what’s the working relationship like?

SÜ: John and I started to work together many years ago. Our first collaboration was a play called Three of Cups which we did in New York back in 1984. Since then, he’s been in several plays of mine: Thalassa My Heart, The Lost Gospels of Balnkenburg, and this play. I wrote this play specifically for him. Our working relationship essentially mirrors our life partnership. We don’t really fight – any disagreements are handled peacefully and calmly. We essentially support each other. People have asked me if this play is inspired by aspects of my own relationship, and I tell them: John and I are the opposite of the Tolstoys.

KAM: What else are you working on?

SÜ: I’m working on a play about the archeological excavations of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic site. I’ve been researching it for over two years. I love the research process.

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