Jo Morello, the producing artistic director of Sarasota’s Starlite Players, said she’s not afraid to address topical issues in the shows she stages.
“We do comedies,” she said, “but we tackle the tough topics.”
But when it came to a new comedy called “Gunplay” that was all set to premiere Thursday, it was pretty obvious that it was the wrong issue for this week.
“I’m never going to run away and stick my head in the sand,” Morello said. “But we felt it just wasn’t appropriate.”
“Gunplay,” by Jack Gilhooley, Morello’s husband, is a satire of gun culture, but it’s also a love story of sorts. It’s about a man who comes into a gun store that’s owned and operated by a woman. He asks to see a gun, and when she hands him one, he attempts to rob her. She’s unconcerned because she knows the gun is unloaded. They begin talking and realize they knew each other years ago.
Meanwhile, outside the gun shop, protestors gather. They’re pushing for gun-law reform.
Clearly, this is not the the time to do this show.
Whether to go ahead with the play might have been a borderline call, except that the impetus for the protest is a mass shooting.
On Sunday, after news of the massacre in Orlando, Morello, Gilhooley and director Mark Woodland talked about trying to rework the script. But before long they realized that the responsible thing to do was to cancel the shows.
“Clearly, this is not the the time to do this show,” Woodland said.
Canceling “Gunplay” was the easy part.
Every month, Starlite stages four short comedies that fit loosely into a theme. With “Gunplay” out, this month’s show would have been too short.
So on Sunday, four days before opening, Morello had to find another short comedy that was about the same length, that could use the same actors from “Gunplay,” and that fit the theme of “Skirting the Law.”
They found one in “At Sea Two Guys in Clerical Guise” by Denis Meadows. It’s about inept burglars who stash their loot in garbage bags and disguise themselves as priests while trying to make their getaway on the Staten Island Ferry.
“We had it scheduled for, I think, August,” Morello said. “We tried to reach the playwright to get permission to do it now. We reached him at 11:30 p.m.” Sunday.
Meadows was happy to give his permission. Just as essentially, director Woodland and actors Rik Robertson, Ren Pearson and Lauren Ward agreed to put in three days of very hard work, starting on Monday, to get the new play ready for Thursday’s opening. Ward and Pearson had been cast in “Gunplay.” People who do the lights, costumes and sets also stepped up.
On Sunday, four days before opening, Morello had to find another short comedy that was about the same length, that could use the same actors from “Gunplay,” and that fit the theme of “Skirting the Law.” They found one in “At Sea Two Guys in Clerical Guise” by Denis Meadows.
“At Sea Two Guys in Clerical Guise” is about 15 to 17 minutes long, which means the actors have a lot to memorize in less than 72 hours. Still, Morello said, she expects they’ll have their lines down and be “off book” by Thursday.
“If not, I’m not going to be unduly upset,” she said. “The two actors who were in ‘Gunplay’ are very committed to this. We were concerned the short rehearsal time, because they have day jobs, but they just said ‘We’ll do it.’”
Both Morello and Woodland said they expect “Gunplay” will be back on the Starlite schedule sometime down the road.
The other short comedies on this week’s program are “‘Honest Abe’ Mazulu” by Stephen Cooper, “Killer Date” by David Abolafia and “Gram Scams” by Cary Pepper.