When playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil watches rehearsals of her work, she can't help herself. Worry and empathy course through her as the actors dig into the text. When they flinch, she flinches, and her body twists and turns while she mouths lines along with the performers.
This time the emotional expenditure is for "Orange," a coming-of-age story involving marriage, adventure and autism that gets its world premiere Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
For Kapil, that welter of emotions is parental: "This is my baby that I'm sending out into the world. I've got to take good care that she has everything she needs to fly."
"Orange" is personal, she said, in the way that all her work is biographical in spirit. Kapil writes characters with empathy, loving even the villains in her world.
The play centers on Leela (Elyse Ahmad), a young woman on the autism spectrum. On the eve of a family wedding, she goes on a California joy ride in search of the perfect citrus fruit. Along the way she meets colorfully mythic and real characters.
"It's about the night that you think will be ordinary but it snowballs so by the next morning, you've crossed a threshold into adulthood," Kapil said.
Commissioned by South Coast Repertory theater in Costa Mesa, Calif. — the title is a nod to the theater's location in Orange County, where much of the action takes place — "Orange" is the seventh Kapil play that will premiere at Mixed Blood, her artistic home. This is the fourth year of her Mellon Foundation fellowship as playwright-in-residence at the West Bank playhouse.
'A brilliant artist'
Theater founder Jack Reuler, her longtime mentor and champion, is directing the play. He first saw Kapil's promise when she was a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, his alma mater. He cast her in a summer-stock production of John Van Druten's "I Remember Mama." The fact that the play is about a Scandinavian family and Kapil is Swedish by way of Bulgaria and India was too perfect.
"The student has long surpassed the teacher," said Reuler. "Aditi has become a major playwright in the field."
Has she ever.
This season, she has been shuttling between New Haven, Conn., Costa Mesa and her home in Minneapolis to tend to world premieres. At Yale, "Imogen Says Nothing," a play commissioned five years ago, is taking its stage bow starting in February. Then, in March, "Orange" will go up at South Coast Rep — an opening that was delayed six months because the director was not available. The company graciously allowed Mixed Blood to take the lead.
Kapil is also working on commissions for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse and others.
"Aditi is a brilliant artist who is able to take voices that have been cut or absent from our central narratives and put them center stage," said Jennifer Kiger, associate artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. "She can take a character like Imogen, who is basically a typo, and build a funny, alternate universe around her."
"Imogen" is a Shakespearean fantasia based on the character Imogen in "Much Ado About Nothing." The character is noted in stage directions but has no lines.
Actor, director, playwright
Kapil never imagined this career for herself. She started as an actor, then became a director. When she decided to start a family with her husband, architectural draftsman Sean Brennan, it was a watershed moment.
"Acting is fickle and unpredictable, plus I'm gone nights," she explained. "Directing is demanding, too. I thought that being a playwright would give me the most stability and time to be with my kids. What was I thinking?"
Kapil was not naive. She just didn't imagine the blazing success she'd have as a playwright.
Fortunately, the Mellon fellowship frees her from working side jobs to pay the bills, but recently she has been gone way more than she's been at home. On the road, she communicates by live video with children Vyara, 14; Nadezhda, 10, and Stefan, 7.
"Fortunately for us, Sean works at home," she said. "But I have made a rule not to be gone more than two weeks at a time."
Recently, she found out that she'll be going to a United Nations conference on climate change in Morocco. Kapil, who speaks five languages, will represent artists and cultural workers as one of two Americans at the international summit.
"The work we do, we sometimes think of it as just play," she said. "We are living in critical times, and the work we do has to reflect that."
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