A dizzying odyssey

Lisa Smith as Megan and Ira Sargent as Chris in John Crutchfield’s diabolical comedy The Labyrinth. Photo by Peter Brezny

John Crutchfield always felt like he had to write by the rules. Restriction was second nature. But in 2003, he decided to throw out those rules and play around with his words and imagination, letting a story and the flow of language lead him to where an experienced, educated poet had not fully ventured. The result was a wild ride through a dramatic piece titled The Labyrinth.

It had not been so difficult to give up his trusted constraints in writing that script: Crutchfield just wasn’t all that crazy about the outcome. So the locally and regionally produced playwright put the 200-page draft away, in some forgotten pile he thought he’d never look at again.

That is, until seven years later, when Steven Samuels, artistic director of the Magnetic Field theater in the River Arts District, put out a call to Crutchfield for scripts. Any scripts. The result? An Asheville (and world) premier of another Crutchfield play, one the author describes as coming from a place of “twisted feelings, like the creepiness of dreams, sometimes deliberately sadistic … all making sense in a ‘dream logic’ sort of way.”

Samuels’ excitement to bring The Labyrinth to stage has given Crutchfield a new appreciation of his first exploration into a play written without so many rules.

“I’m really excited to see [The Labyrinth] come to the stage. I have not had a ‘first’ show done in a while,” Crutchfield says. It’s been four years, to be exact. “This is my most ambitious play, with the most people in it, and I certainly am very happy with the man directing it.”

That man, of course, is Samuels. He and Crutchfield are getting rather used to working together. Samuels has directed some of Crutchfield’s other plays, as well as directing Crutchfield onstage, the most recent collaboration being The Songs of Robert, written by and starring Crutchfield. The show won an Outstanding Solo Performance Award at the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival.

Unlike Songs of Robert, The Labyrinth “is going to be very, very trippy,” Samuels says.

And just what does “trippy” mean? Imagine a young man traveling to and through everywhere “from a mental hospital to a graveyard, a desert, a boat on the River Styx, a television studio and more,” looking for his best friend. An odyssey that incorporates a grave digger, a coal miner, an aging jam band, a topologist of knots and even Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird, all taking place mostly in a vast underworld of weirdness. “If one tried to imagine a mash-up of Dante's Divine Comedy, Ibsen's Peer Gynt and the fiction of Haruki Murakami, this unique, riveting, and improbably funny play might just be the result,” Samuels says of The Labyrinth.

The now 8-year-old draft did need some revising, however. Crutchfield and Samuels worked together to fine-tune the piece, originally written to help Crutchfield deal with a painful life experience. It is a work of love, passion and healing. His note on the original script included a comment about the “seriousness of tragedy,” a statement that gained meaning as time progressed.

The seriousness of this show also expresses what the writer and director call the “comedy of tragedy.”

“There is no way not to respond to [The Labyrinth] as a comedy, except you’re always aware that it’s made of some of the most serious stuff imaginable,” Samuels says.

Crutchfield describes the combination of tragedy and comedy by referring to Samuel Beckett, the avant-garde writer, dramatist and poet known for his absurdist examinations of the anxiety of modern life, among other themes. Beckett's work offers a grim outlook on human culture, wrapping it all up in ridiculousness.

“Tragedy and comedy are yoked together in the way that knowing that in tragedy, you realize the deep prescription of knowing the comedy, the absurdity of a situation. Comedy is deeper and wiser, more modest (than tragedy),” Crutchfield says.

Lest we get too serious here, there’s a promise from Samuels: “The late-night shows should be wild.”

— Tracy D. Hyorth is a freelance writer who has written about Asheville and Western North Carolina since 1985. She can be reached at outnaboutwnc@gmail.com

who: The Labyrinth by John Crutchfield
what: World premier play
where: The Magnetic Field
when: Previews: April 7-8; Opening: April 15. Performances continue April 14-16, 21-23, 28-30, at 7:30 nightly, with late shows on Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m.. $12 for Thursdays and late shows, $14 for Friday and Saturday 7:30 performances. themagneticfield.com

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