Theater & art

Winter Arts guide: theater

With ‘Blood Play,’ the Debate Society pays a visit to suburbia

“We over-create a world” says the Debate Society’s Hannah Bos (far right, with Michael Cyril Creighton in “Blood Play”). “And then we chisel it down over a long period of time and get really specific with everything.’’ At left, a moment from the play.
Sue Kessler
“We over-create a world” says the Debate Society’s Hannah Bos. “And then we chisel it down over a long period of time and get really specific with everything.’’ At left, a moment from the play.

NEW YORK — Out in the dusky backyard, a little boy named Ira is camping solo in a canvas tent. Inside, his parents, Bev and Morty, are down in the brand-new basement rec room, hosting an impromptu party and serving fruit-festooned cocktails from their well-stocked bar. It’s 1950-something in a Chicago suburb, and beneath the determinedly cheery surface lurks an ominous alienation.

This is “Blood Play,” a somewhat enigmatic dark comedy from the Debate Society. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based theater company is bringing the piece, its seventh full-length play, to ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing Festival for three performances Feb. 21-23.

“We’re struggling always with how to tell the story, and sometimes they’re very ambiguous on purpose, because it’s more interesting what’s in your imagination,” said playwright and actress Hannah Bos, one-third of the Debate Society and a graduate of Harvard’s ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training. On a frigid afternoon, Bos was sitting beside Oliver Butler, one of her two co-artistic directors, in an East Village bar near the Public Theater, where “Blood Play” was part of January’s Under the Radar Festival.

Sue Kessler
Michael Cyril Creighton and Hannah Bos in the Debate Society's "Blood Play."

“We’re sort of interested in the moments before and the moments after what most plays maybe tend to be about, or what most stories focus on,” said Butler, who directed and developed the play, written by Bos and their other co-artistic director, Paul Thureen. “We sort of like to create whatever the moment of the play is in relief to the other things around it. So we spend a lot of time trying to sort of release just enough information.”

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“We over-create a world,” explained Bos, who plays Bev in “Blood Play,” “and then we chisel it down over a long period of time and get really specific with everything. So we have this whole other world: Like, we know where the people are coming from last week.”

In the nine-year-old company’s plays, characters might allude to events that are never fully explained; certain guiding notions — like Munchausen syndrome by proxy in “Buddy Cop 2,” from 2010 — are entirely inexplicit; and some details are secrets that the Debate Society keeps to itself. The exact year that “Blood Play” is set is one of those, not even specified in the stage directions. And then there are the company’s inspirations.

“We’ll have, like, an invisible file cabinet of ideas for future plays,” Bos said, miming the cabinet as she spoke. “For a long time, I had been like, ‘Guys: Skokie. Let me just put this out there. Skokie’s crazy.’”

That would be Skokie, Ill., which borders Evanston, where Bos grew up. Another idea in the invisible file cabinet: ranch houses, which are plentiful in Skokie.


“Also,” Bos said, “we all kind of have a love for, like, sad suburbia.”

They were intrigued, too, by the thought of neighborhoods springing up where farming land used to be: “this natural world that had been sort of stripped away to make room for this new development,” Butler said.

So when they decided to apply for a Six Points Fellowship, given to support work about Jewish culture, those elements were blended with their desire to explore the medieval myth “that Jewish men menstruate and eat Christian babies to replenish their menstrual symptoms,” said Bos, who is Jewish.

“Antiquated anti-Semitism and using feminization to kind of fear-monger, that was sort of interesting to us,” she added. “We were also interested in what it meant to be Jewish in post-World War II and the specifics of being American and how important it was to fit in.”

“Blood Play” is set in Skokie, which Butler and Thureen — who also appears in the play, as a portrait photographer named Jeep — visited with Bos a year and a half ago.


“We took my mom’s car, and we parked it and we walked around Skokie during the day, and then we went back at night,” Bos said. “The alleys there were like the creepiest things ever. Just like, Lake Michigan mist, and shadows, and not a lot of light, and house after house, and just these perfectly manicured bushes.”

“During the day,” Butler said, “it’s like the most sort of boring, toothless place ever, and at night, it became like the set of a horror film.”

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@