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Kansas Rep Theatre's 'The Book Club Play' Explores What Book Club Is Really Like

Luke Samuel Jordan
(from left to right) Ethan Malin (Will), Noelle McDonald (Jen), Francesca Haynes (Lily), Drew Vidal (Rob), and Shanna Jones (Ana) meet to discuss books in 'The Book Club Play.'

Experiences that used to exist only in the physical world become digitized each day — accessible through the Internet and on screens in one form or another.

But are the experiences the same? And what's lost or gained in the process?  

Questions like this are central to The Book Club Play by Latina playwright Karen Zacarias. The production about a group of "book loving individuals" marks the second in Kansas RepertoryTheatre's summer season at the William Inge Memorial Theatre on the University of Kansas campus. 

"A lot of people who love books have this debate," says director Jane Barnette, "about whether it changes what you're able to take in when you're reading a book — if you're encountering it through a digital screen or by reading it on a page." 

Barnette, an assistant professor in the theater department, says this discussion becomes even more complicated in The Book Club Play. Because it's not just a play — it's a documentary. Or, more accurately, it's a play about a documentary adaptation of a book club. 

Credit Luke Samuel Jordan
(left to right) Drew Vidal (Rob), Francesca Haynes (Lily), Noelle McDonald (Jen), and Eric Palmquist (Alex) in a scene from 'The Book Club Play.'

The audience will experience The Book Club Play on multiple levels. They'll watch as characters are interviewed on camera and swap roles, using hyper self-aware humor.

The theatricality, Barnette says, shines when it steps away from conventional theatrical structure and comments on the modern melange of storytelling media.

Social and cultural references in the play explore how we engage in conversation today compared to the past, such as in the Age of Enlightenment. The Internet offers similar, if not more varied, opportunities for dialogue to that of a book club gathering.

There's room, says Barnette, for an exchange of ideas in both realms, "but there's something about being physically in the same space as someone." 

She adds, "I don't have a book club, I've always wanted to have one but definitely would think that I'd want to do that with people I'm in the same room with."

With its lighthearted layers of humor, The Book Club Play pokes fun at tendencies to quarrel over differences while simultaneously exploring what unites us. 

"The main character, Ana, she believes she'll bring 'enlightenment' to the world with her book club," Barnette says. "If you look historically to the Enlightenment and salon culture and conversations they were having, there's not a direct tie, in fact there's very different classes of people but those ideas were in the atmosphere."

"It's like memes," she says. "It's a viral idea."

The Book Club Play, 7:30 p.m. July 20, 21, 22, 2:30 p.m. July 22, 23, William Inge Memorial Theatre, Murphy Hall, University of Kansas, 1530 Naismith Drive, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044. 

Chad Onianwa is KCUR's arts intern. Reach him at arts@kcur.org.

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