“I had done my time at summer camp. It seemed like a special location for people, a transformative place, a transition between early childhood and adolescence,” said playwright Gregory Moss, explaining the inspiration behind his new work, “Billy Witch,” now enjoying its New York City premiere by the Astoria Performing Arts Center.
A dark comedy, the play has variously been described as quirky, creepy and bawdy.
At its center is 14-year-old Oliver, who braves the wilderness at sleep-away camp, an experience that turns out to be anything but normal.
Though the play is about children, director Erik Pearson points out that it is aimed at “adults of all ages.” In fact, children under 14 will not be admitted to see it.
According to Pearson, the play takes the summer camp horror movies and comedy films and “plays with the genre.”
And he said,“In the tradition of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ such strange things happen in the woods.”
Pearson and Moss worked together on the script, a relatively new experience for the 32-year-old director.
“I used to do nothing but classics. In graduate school, I realized I was limiting myself,” Pearson said.
“Supernatural forces are at work” in the writing he added. “Greg does a fantastic job of helping us relive that period in our lives, of kids growing up.”
The play “speaks frankly of what it means to be that age,” he said.
Interestingly, all the actors, many of whom are members of Actors Equity, the professionals’ union, have long since left their adolescence behind. “We’ve cast actors with the ability to channel their inner tweens,” Pearson said, suggesting that “we don’t really want to see actual children” in roles that require more than a certain level of maturity.
One of the actors, Andy Phelan, who, though 33, said his youthful appearance means he can’t even get auditions for characters over the age of 20, agrees that it might be inappropriate for pre-teens to play roles that explore their identities and sexuality.
“We’re not trying to pretend we’re 14,” he said. “Camp is a collective experience that everyone has had. I hadn’t thought of camp in forever. It’s great to do research on camp and revisit that.”
Phelan, who describes his role as the play’s “dark horse,” is a former resident of Astoria for whom being in the play marks a return not only to his old neighborhood but to APAC, as well, where two years ago he starred in the much-lauded production, “MilkMilkLemonade.”
Moss, who refers to “Billy Witch” as “an odd piece of work,” sees it having life on the university circuit and among up-and-coming theater companies.
He said it has a particular sense of humor that tends to appeal to people 35 and under.
Phelan, for one, looks optimistically ahead to a time when the play becomes a theatrical staple and he will forever be able to say he had “something to do with the initial production.”
For this production, Pearson said he has done away with the traditional proscenium stage and “completely transformed the space,” making it “unlike anything APAC audiences have seen before.”
Moss, having seen a recent run-through, said, “I’m incredibly proud of the work that APAC has done.”
For Moss, 35, camp was a local “Y” in his native Massachusetts. Currently residing in Brooklyn, he started working on the piece about four years ago, when he was in residence at the Millay Colony in upstate Austerlitz.
Since then, the play was given a workshop at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in 2008 and enjoyed its first production at Northeastern University two years later.
It was earlier this year that Pearson led a developmental production at Studio 42 in Manhattan, after the play was brought to him by a friend who the director said “thought it would be up my alley. At its heart, it’s a coming-of-age story, but it turns that story on its head. The play feels very familiar and very strange at the same time.”
When: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 17.
Where: Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent Street, Astoria
Tickets: $18; $12 seniors/students
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