This Visionary Tony-Nominated Director Has Another Hit With ‘Merry Me’

Arts & Celebrities

“Why don’t you write me a lesbian sex farce?”

When director Leigh Silverman was working with playwright Hansol Jung on her play Wild Goose Dreams, a very serious piece about fractured families and betrayal, Silverman suggested their next collaboration be not so dark. Hence, a lesbian sex farce.

Wild Goose Dreams is a very beautiful but dark piece of theater,” says Silverman who has directed more than 60 world premieres and musicals. “It tapped right into Hansol’s feelings about being an immigrant in this country from South Korea.”

At the time it was winter. “We were walking from tech rehearsal to Whole Foods to get some soup because we were both sick and I just said, ‘Hansol, the next play has to be a comedy,’” says Silverman who also worked together on Jung’s play Cardboard Piano.

Much to Silverman’s delight, Jung rose to the challenge. Not only did she meet it, she wrote a most original comedic piece which tips its hat to a pastiche of periods and genres including restoration plays, greek dramas, the Country Wife and more.

This past week Merry Me, directed by Silverman, opened at New York Theatre Workshop, the historic, risk taking theater where Rent, Hadestown and Once had their beginnings. “One of the crazy things about Hansol is that she really likes to defy expectations,” says Silverman. “She’s calling on all of our queer ancestors—past, present, and future—putting them into the craziest blender with the Greeks and Our Town.”

Taking place at an navy base on an imaginary island off the coast of the enemy state somewhere, Shane Horn just cannot stop messing with the women on base. Shenanigans and mayhem ensues.

To overly describe Merry Me would give away too many spoilers. “It’s an incredibly queered up cocktail of a play about a group of people stationed on an army base and the sexual shenanigans that they get into,” I like to leave it at that,” says Silverman.

The play is chock full of references. For example, the main character in the play is Shane Horn (the main character in the Country Wife is Harry Horner. With a nod to Aeschylus and his play Agamemnon, there’s General Memnon, his wife, Mrs. Memnon (or Clytemnestra) and their son is Private Willy Memnon. The cast features Marinda Anderson, Cindy Cheung, Esco Jouléy, David Ryan Smith, Ryan Spahn, Nicole Villamil and Shaunette Renée Wilson.

“Hansol has such an amazing brain for structure. She kept finding different ways to reference, pay tribute to and subvert types and kinds of theater, that supported the story that she wanted to tell which in some ways is a twist on The Country Wife,” says Silverman “But really at its heart it’s a play about female sexuality, female desire and nonviolence.”

But even if the many references are missed, Merry Me still takes audiences on a wild romp. “I like to say that it operates the way that The Muppet Show operates. You can be a five-year-old and not know any of the references. Or you can be a very deep nerd and know all of the references, but there’s something for everyone,” says Silverman. In fact, Jung dedicated Merry Me to her.

Also, doing Merry Me at New York Theatre Workshop is the perfect venue and very meaningful for Silverman who was an intern there early in her career. “I walked into New York Theatre Workshop in 1996 and Rent was happening in that space,” she says. “I had never seen anything like it. Like the rest of us, I had never seen these people on stage. I hadn’t seen those stories told in this way,” she says. “And since then they have continued to support stories and voices that we often don’t see.”

For Silverman, the real joy is sitting in the audience and listening to the laughter. “People are really desperate for a laugh right now. It’s a really hard time. There’s an onslaught of terrible news in the world and to be able to provide, 90 minutes of pure escape and delight is a balm for me,” says Silverman who will next reunite with Billy Crudup directing him in the Berkeley Rep production of Harry Clarke. And she’s working to bring Shaina Taub’s musical Suffs to Broadway this spring. “It’s a great payoff to all of the very hard work that we’ve done to get there.”


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