A year after Marina Keegan’s ’12 death in a car accident, her play “Utility Monster” will have its national premiere this weekend at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, located in the Cape Cod, Mass. town where Keegan’s family has its summer home.
“Utility Monster” was first performed as a Dramat Spring Experimental production in 2011. The play tells the story of a group of teenagers who, upon learning that a mere five dollars can save an African child’s life, formulate a plan to steal artwork and donate the proceeds to Oxfam International.
W.H.A.T. Artistic Director Dan Lombardo said he discovered the play after speaking with Marina’s father, Kevin Keegan, in the Wellfleet theater the summer after her death. Marina’s mother Tracy Keegan said “Utility Monster” is an especially appropriate show for Wellfleet because the town is known for its galleries and strong artistic community.
Keegan often began writing plays with a central question in mind, explained Chloe Sarbib ‘12, the show’s original director. Sarbib said Keegan wrote “Utility Monster” while struggling to reconcile her desire to work as a writer with her political activism and conviction that “the world was a place that needed fixing,” Sarbib said. She added that the play directly questions the value of art, and by extension higher education, which do not have the capacity to save a human life.
“Even if the play’s moral is that it is more valuable to save a starving African kid than have a painting… you’ve been convinced by a play,” Sarbib said. “It inherently must be a vindication of art.”
Lombardo, who is directing “Utility Monster,” said Keegan had a gift unlike any other he has seen in a young playwright. He explained that some plays grow “thin” after several readings, but “Utility Monster” is not one of them.
“Every day that we go through this script, rehearse scenes, develop blocking and characters, the play gets deeper and deeper,” Lombardo said.
“Utility Monster” evolved a great deal over the course of the Dramat production, with both Keegan and Sarbib continually making changes until the show crystallized into its current form, Sarbib said. Kevin Keegan said Marina tightened the show after its opening at the Dramat, and the reworked play went on to win “Best Reading” at the Midtown International Theatre Festival and to be read at the Firework Theater in New York City.
Lombardo said W.H.A.T.’s technical capabilities will allow the professional production to bring the play to life in new ways. The power point presentations written into the show, for example, will involve original sound design and animations that could not be accomplished at the undergraduate level, he said.
“But mostly it’s a very human play,” Lombardo added. “We don’t overwhelm what’s going on onstage with these other things.”
The W.H.A.T. production also uses actors extremely close in age to the show’s characters, who range from 15 to 54 years old. The teenage protagonists are played by Wellfleet actors Lily Flores, 16 and Ryan Rudewicz, 17.
“We learn every day through their personal experiences what Sadie and Claude are really like,” Lombardo said. “I think we’re getting a very fresh, very authentic look at the characters Marina has created.”
Yale School of Drama Dean James Bundy DRA ’95 helped organize a donation on behalf of the University to support the production, Lombardo said. Bundy said in an email that he had taught Keegan at the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford program in 2010, and had seen her on campus occasionally throughout her junior and senior years.
The play’s opening weekend, which marks the anniversary of Keegan’s death, will bring together numerous family and friends of hers, Tracy Keegan said.
Former Saybrook College Dean Paul McKinley DRA ’96 said he is attending the premiere both as someone who knew Keegan well and as a representative of Yale College. The performance will be followed by a party in the theater open to the entire audience to celebrate Keegan and discuss the play, Lombardo said.
“A lot of her work has an underlying message of social change or making a difference, and it’s always done with comedy. She’s always very funny and entertaining and then she will turn on a dime and make you cry or break your heart,” Kevin Keegan said. “I feel like it’s my job now to get her work out there.”
“Utility Monster” will run at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater from May 25 through June 22, with previews on May 23 and 24.