Zeitgeist Stage Company’s productions have been extra zeitgeist-y of late, with good results.
“Punk Rock” looked at the complex dynamics behind an act of teen violence and opened in May 2013, just weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing, with the Sandy Hook massacre still on many minds. Last fall the company tackled Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” an anguished, autobiographical look at responses to the AIDS crisis. This winter, the dark comedy “Neighborhood Watch” showed an effort to reduce crime in one subdivision, with neighbors going way over the top in ways that brought to mind the Trayvon Martin case.
In nominations for the Elliot Norton Awards announced last week, “Punk Rock” and “Normal Heart” were both tapped for Outstanding Production by a Fringe Theater. Producing artistic director David J. Miller got a nomination for directing both plays, and the productions also earned several nods for acting.
“Despite the heaviness of both shows, the dressing rooms for both shows were like the funnest places on earth,” Miller says. “They had a blast backstage because they were working so hard onstage.”
Now Zeitgeist and Miller are back with another report from the dark (and darkly funny) heart of contemporary culture. Rod McLachlan’s “Good Television” goes on location with one of the ickier iterations of reality television, the rehab show. The Zeitgeist production, directed by Miller, began performances Friday at the Plaza Black Box Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
“I’m not personally a huge fan of reality TV,” Miller says. “They were filming an episode of ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Bachelorette’ in my South End neighborhood. We were coming out for dinner, and we were stopped while they filmed. And they did, like, eight takes of somebody walking up the front steps. And I’m, like, that’s not reality.
“I’ve seen the ads for ‘Dance Moms’ on Lifetime, and it looks like instead of cameras, they should send in the department of social services,” he adds with a horrified-sounding chuckle.
It’s the first produced play by veteran actor McLachlan, but he knows his material. His wife was a producer on A&E’s “Intervention,” which ran from 2005-13. His fictional series “Rehabilitation” closely tracks that show, with a crew of TV producers filming addicts as their families try to get them into rehab.
Field producer Connie Cuellar works on locations with the working-class MacAddy family and 21-year-old scion Clemmy, a methamphetamine addict who’s not excited about the show or the notion of an all-expenses-paid stint in rehab. Efforts by Connie and company to fit the family into the show’s process keep making things worse, revealing increasingly dark corners of the family’s history.
Reality TV has been a ready target for satire and drama for at least a decade, but Miller says this piece is fresh.
“It gets into the personal. It’s not a sendup or a takeoff on reality television, it is a serious look at it,” Miller says. Connie “has been sober for 15 years, but failing to help this addict has a profound effect on her.”
“Reality TV is the framework for these issues and the play does what I think good drama should do, which is make you sit up and pay attention to the people involved and what their motives are and what the end result is,” he says.
Connie is played by Christine Power, a veteran of five previous Zeitgeist shows. Miller thought of her as soon as he decided to produce it. “Christine has a very tough exterior, but has capacity for great empathy, which is exactly what Connie is about,” he says.
He cast her, then auditioned for the other roles. The cast includes Benjamin Lewin as the hapless Clemmy, Jenny Reagan as his more responsible sister, Brittany, and Shelley Brown as Bernice, Connie’s boss back in Hollywood.
“Connie is a great challenge in that it would have been very easy for someone to have put this play together and made her one-dimensional, but she is certainly haunted by her own demons, she is a very flawed and failed protagonist, which gives a lot of richness to it,” Power says.
“All of the characters are coming at the same issue in very different ways, but no one is wrong,” she says. “Connie is at the center of all of that. She is spearheading these shows, it’s her mission, her drive. But she’s also drowning in it.”
Like those other Zeitgeist shows, “it’s a challenge for the actors and the audience,” Power says. “When you leave a Zeitgeist show, you want to talk about it.”
Zeitgeist also has a special project underway that’s worth noting. On the next three Mondays, the troupe will host the Boston-area premiere of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” also at the Plaza Black Box Theatre.
It’s the work Soleimanpour sent out to the world when he was denied permission to leave Iran a few years ago, apparently for having refused military service. Producers emphasize that it is not overtly political, describing it as “an actor’s dream . . . or an actor’s nightmare.”
The single-performer play has no director and no set, no rehearsals, and a different actor for each performance. It’s a one-time leap of faith by each actor: They don’t get to see the script until they arrive on stage.
Maureen Keiller will perform the piece on Monday, Victor Shopov on May 5, and John Kuntz on May 12. Performances are free and open to the public, but reservations are required. To reserve tickets — limited to two per person — send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org