Alison Fraser recreates a horror in staged reading at The Mount
PITTSFIELD — Alison Fraser covets original roles. She played Martha in "The Secret Garden" when the musical premiered on Broadway in 1991. She received the second of her two Tony Award nominations for her performance.
"To be a part of an origination of a piece is wildly exciting," she told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.
But debuting a psychotherapist and recovering alcoholic in Aaron Mark's solo horror play, "Squeamish," Off-Broadway last fall was a stomach-turning experience.
"It was the most challenging piece of theater I've ever done in my life. I can't imagine anything being more challenging," she said of the play that opened its run at Theater Row's Samuel Beckett Theater on Oct. 16, 2017. "It was terrifying, but once Aaron's words were fully in my head ... it was just a glorious, glorious solo performance. I don't think I'll ever be able to have that experience again."
Beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday, Fraser will read Mark's script at The Stable at The Mount in an event presented by Only in My Dreams Events. Unlike many staged readings, this performance will closely resemble its fully staged production.
"Reading implies a different thing than I think you'll get from this particular performance, which is a reading in the literal sense that she'll have the script in front of her," Mark said when reached by phone, "but the truth is, this particular piece was written very minimalistically, so even when we did the full production ... she literally sat in a chair the whole time and delivered the whole play in the dark as a monologue, as a physically static monologue."
"It will be very close to the staging that we had in New York," Fraser said, likening it to "telling a horror story around a campfire."
In the play, Upper West Side-based Sharon relives her travels to Lubbock, Texas, for her nephew's funeral. She grew up in Lubbock but hadn't been back in decades. The homecoming brings Sharon, who is afraid of blood, face-to-face with her fears, ones she has long suppressed through medication and other means. The encounter is complex.
"It's about the idea of phobia and compulsion being two sides of the same coin, or obsession and revulsion being, again, two sides of the same coin. It's about that fine line between the two," Mark said.
The playwright and director has long been fascinated by fear.
"I, myself, am just a really neurotic, fearful person, frankly. I find that writing about it and exploring it and going straight into the heart of it is a great exorcism for me personally," Mark said, noting that theatrical mysteries and thrillers have long captivated him.
Drawing inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe, the intensity of Mark's writing can be overwhelming sometimes.
"I've never done a show that has so viscerally affected people," Fraser said. "We had people getting nausea, and you never see blood in this. You never see anything. All you do is hear the words of a masterful storyteller as interpreted by me."
Before she took the stage, Fraser recalled that she would say to anybody within earshot, "I'll see you on the other side." She was so distressed by the play that she took time off after its New York run.
"It's such a disturbing piece, and it had been so difficult to learn," she said.
But this play was written for Fraser.
"It sounds exactly like me," she said. "I do hem and haw, and I do take quick right turns in the middle of a sentence, so many people who see 'Squeamish' cannot believe that a lot of it isn't improvised, but every single syllable, every punctuation mark, is absolutely adhered to."
Fraser's familiarity with the play's syntax isn't coincidental; Fraser is one of Mark's muses. Mark has also penned and directed monologues "Another Medea" (for Tom Hewitt) and "Empanada Loca" (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Fraser and Mark worked for multiple years on the "Squeamish" script; Fraser estimated that they met once per month. She called her collaborator "brilliant."
"To me, 'Squeamish' is theater in its very, very purest form. All it is is an actress sitting in a chair with one light and a side table and a mug. That's it. There's no fancy lights. There's no sound effects. There's nothing but me," she said.
The two New York City-based artists worked together on Berkshire Theatre Group's 2015 production of "Deathtrap," which Mark directed; Fraser also appeared in BTG's 2013 production of "Anna Christie" and Williamstown Theatre Festival's "Far From Heaven" in 2012.
"We both love, love, love the Berkshires," Mark said.
Fraser is friends with Only in My Dreams Events president Oskar Hallig. After Hallig saw "Squeamish" in New York last year, he was determined to bring it to the Berkshires in some capacity, according to Mark.
"We were just thrilled to be able to revisit the play and the character and to see how it lands in the Berkshires," Mark said.
At The Mount, Fraser will have a music stand with the script to reference, though she may not need to look at it too much from the easy chair she'll be occupying.
"This stuff is burned in my head," she said. "I'll never not be able to have it in my head now."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
What: Reading of "Squeamish." Written and directed by Aaron Mark
When: Saturday evening at 8
Where: The Stable at The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox
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