News Column

Stage preview: 'Abigail' playwright dabbles in darkness

May 1, 2013

YellowBrix

May 01--Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a sunny outlook for a guy who likes his entertainment on the dark side. His name pops up in a spectrum of page and screen projects, from the TV series "Glee" to the upcoming movie remake of "Carrie," from Marvel comic books to live theater, where Pittsburgh first got a glimpse of his sensibility with 2007's "The Muckle Man" at City Theatre.

As the South Side theater company readied "Abigail/1702," his play about the further adventures of "The Crucible's" Abigail Williams, he was on call in his office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and apologized in advance, in case he was summoned to the writers' room for "Glee." He said the Fox series could be the light in his darkness, until he was reminded that the show hasn't had a whole lot of cheeriness lately.

Certainly, "Abigail/1702" goes to dark places and shares traits with another of the writer's projects, the remake of Stephen King's high school horror story, "Carrie," due in October.

"I love horror, I love musicals. So it's not so weird that I wrote of 'Carrie' or that I write 'Glee.' I love comic books, always have, and that is a pop culture thing in a way that 'Glee' is a very pop culture thing, and 'Carrie' and the prom story, that is a pop culture kind of story as well. Strangely, Carrie and Abigail are not that dissimilar, either, in terms of Carrie is a young woman who is an outsider. Both characters are accused of being a witch. There are resonances across the spectrum that I like."

The idea for writing a whatever-happened-to theater piece about Abigail Williams came when Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa saw "The Crucible" and re-read the play and the annotations by playwright Arthur Miller. At 17, Abigail plots the murder of the wife of the man she loves, dabbles in witchcraft and accuses others to deflect suspicion, then disappears from the story.

Miller's note on what happens next is, "Legend has it that Abigail Williams later became a prostitute in Boston," and most historical accounts dismiss her with the same brief account.

Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa wanted a resolution for Abigail and began to imagine a different future for her. His play, first produced in 2008, catches up with her 10 years after "The Crucible" -- the "1702" of the title -- when she has become a caregiver for victims of small pox and other dreaded diseases.

"One thing that occurs a lot in my work is stories of redemption. In all of dramatic literature, there are just a few irredeemable characters. Iago is one of them, Abigail Williams feels like another one. I thought that it would be a more interesting challenge to figure out how this girl would go about trying to redeem herself, more interesting than just telling, like, a Frank Wedekind version of Abigail's descent into debauchery and harlotry," he said of the 19th- century "Spring Awakening" playwright.

"That was the first impulse. It did evolve into more of a ghost story, a phantasmagoria kind of thing, because that's where my interests lie. The kind of stories I like are spookier as opposed to straight-on historical."

He will visit Pittsburgh during the play's run, taking time out from wrapping the fourth season of "Glee" and a bundle of projects, including writing the book for the musical adaptation of "American Psycho," with Tony-winning "Spring Awakening" composer-lyricist Duncan Sheik. "American Psycho" is due at London's Almeida Theatre in the fall, when the latest comic book from the Spider-Man/Fantastic Four writer will hit newsstands.

Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa is flashing back to the earliest days of his career by creating a story arc for Archie Comics, the same company that once sent him a cease-and-desist letter. "That was a long, long time ago when I was in graduate school. I wrote a satire of the Archie characters, which at the time the Archie management was not thrilled with. The truth is, they had every reason to not be pleased with me, and somehow they found this little production in Atlanta, and I didn't know it was on anyone's radar. I'm very happy to be working with Archie in a very legit way now."

The title is "Afterlife With Archie," which puts the Riverdale gang in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, "with, of course, a nod to Pittsburgh's zombie history," he said.

"Also this summer, I'm going to Texas and Louisiana to work on a movie I wrote called 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown,' which is a low-budget horror movie based on a very famous murder that happened in Texarkana in the '40s. So I guess I need to work on a nice light comedy."

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. Read about Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's work as a script doctor for the Broadway show "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," in the blog www.post-gazette.com/popi.

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