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In Chelsea, women playwrights have a voice

Rachel Axler and Crystal Skillman discuss their plays, ‘Smudge’ and ‘Cut’

Danielle Fauteux Jacques

Alison Meirowitz in Rachel Axler’s “Smudge,’’ being presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company at Chelsea Theatre Works.

Last week’s column was about creating opportunities for female playwrights, who don’t get produced in nearly the same numbers as men. In a surprise second-act twist, this week’s column is about two plays by women writers running in repertory at Chelsea’s Apollinaire Theatre Company.

“We were looking around for what we wanted to do in the spring, and we were really excited to find some strong plays by contemporary female playwrights,’’ says Danielle Fauteux Jacques, artistic director of Apollinaire.

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The run began Friday night with “Smudge,’’ by Rachel Axler, a dark comedy about a couple whose baby turns out to be a . . . smudge. “Cut,’’ by Crystal Skillman, opening March 30, follows three reality-television writers as their personal issues erupt during a very bad day behind the scenes of “The Ladies of Malibu.’’

Both playwrights are in their 30s. “The plays went together well, and they’re both dealing with issues that people of the generation of these playwrights confront,’’ Jacques says. “Pregnancy, marriage, career, and how that defines us or doesn’t define us.’’

Did Apollinaire go looking for plays by women? “We did, actually, but it was more sort of that as we were reading, we realized that these were the plays we were excited about,’’ Jacques says.

“We’ve always had a fair number of plays by women in our repertoire,’’ Jacques says. “It’s something that obviously there’s been a ton of talk about lately. We chose these two first and foremost because we thought they were really strong pieces, but yes, we were really interested in bringing some new female voices to the table in the Boston theater scene.’’

“It’s funny,’’ Axler says from California, “but from my perspective, at least half if not a greater percentage of the playwrights writing now whose work I know and love are women.’’

Workshops and readings are usually much more diverse than plays in any company’s formal season, Skillman says in a separate conversation from New York. “In terms of the mechanics of larger theaters, there’s still usually the ‘new play slot,’ ’’ she says. “It seems like everyone who’s a little bit different is in competition for that.’’

Both productions are Boston premieres. Jacques says this is only the second production of “Cut,’’ which debuted in New York last year. “Smudge’’ has been produced several times since its premiere by the Women’s Project in New York in 2010, including a Salem Theatre Company production last year.

The characters in “Cut’’ are “struggling to find themselves, but they’ve given so much of themselves away,’’ says Jacques. “Where they’re creating these inauthentic lives for other people, they’re struggling to be authentic in their own lives, to find their own souls.’’

Skillman says she was first inspired by the similarity between reality-television characters’ to-the-camera speeches and the little movies of our lives that we all carry around in our heads: “That’s really fascinating. Those are like monologues; those are like soliloquies. I’m like, oh, that’s like theater. And then I made the leap to, that’s an active way to talk about writing and memory and how is it writing helps us see each other and justify the actions we’ve done in our lives.’’

Where “Cut’’ offers a hard-edged, off-camera naturalism, “Smudge’’ is skewed by a touch of nightmare, as a young couple find themselves parenting a nearly featureless, one-eyed orb, described as being like a jellyfish. It’s Kafka by way of “Eraserhead,’’ but set in an ordinary, present-day milieu.

Axler, who has written for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’’ and “Parks and Recreation,’’ says some have criticized the play as being about a disabled child, which angers them and pains her. She notes that those who are upset usually haven’t seen the play, only read about it. It’s not really about the smudge, she says.

“I had an idea about a woman who didn’t love or connect with her baby,’’ Axler says. “I thought that that would be one of the saddest and scariest situations to be in, because you just assume a natural bond between a mother and child when a baby is born.’’

She knows it’s a difficult play to get right tonally, but that seems to have been part of the attraction for the companies that have tackled it.

“If I talk with the people who are doing it, it’s almost always presented to me as, ‘We were up for this challenge!’ ’’ Axler says, beginning to laugh. “I didn’t intend to write it as a challenge, but that totally works for me.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.
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