James D. Farruggio (from left), Cyd Blakewell, John Gawlik, John Kelly Connolly and Chuck Spencer rehearse a scene from “Broadsword.” | Joshua Longbrake photo
‘Broadsword: A Heavy Metal Play, ’ Sept. 26-Nov. 24, Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee. $20-$30. (773) 283-7071; thegifttheatre.org
Updated: September 25, 2013 5:12PM
The setting of Marco Ramirez’s “Broadsword: A Heavy Metal Play” is a dreary New Jersey basement that has seen happier days. This former rehearsal space still filled with their old equipment is where three former bandmates reunite after a memorial service. Richie, the odd genius who wrote the band’s thundering heavy metal songs, has gone missing and is presumed dead.
It’s a play about youthful dreams and grown-up disappointments as well as loyalty and the mix of conflict and joy within a creative collaboration. Ramirez wrote the play when he was studying playwriting at Julliard. The assignment was to create something that took place in one setting.
“So I had to think of the coolest place I could load with meaning and history,” Ramirez recalls. “And this seemed very natural. Plus there’s something that’s always exciting to me about that thin line between genius and madness and creativity.”
“Broadsword” is having its Chicago premiere at Gift Theatre under the direction of Keira Fromm. The cast features Chuck Spencer, Cyd Blakewell, John Kelly Connolly, James D. Farruggio, Gabriel Franken and John Gawlik.
In “Broadsword” (the band’s name), Ramirez mixes rock ’n’ roll reunion, funeral play and a mash-up of the classic Faustian sell-your-soul-to-the devil device. A fan of musicians such as Robert Johnson, Daniel Johnston and Charlie Parker, he’s long been fascinated by “the devil in the music.”
The playwright’s mix of “the ordinary with the extraordinary” is what caught Fromm’s attention.
“On the surface, it’s a pretty typical reunion story,” Fromm explains, “but bubbling beneath the surface there’s this really exciting, spooky and strange world filled with supernatural occurrences, colorful characters and downright magic.”
The son of Cuban immigrants, Ramirez grew up in south Florida; he loved comic books, television and movies, later developing an interest in fantasy and science fiction. In high school, he discovered theater when he realized “all I had to do was know how to write and people would pay attention. It was magic.” After studying playwriting at New York University and Julliard (where Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman was a mentor), he now divides his time between writing for theater and television.
Ramirez was a writer for two seasons on the FX show “Sons of Anarchy,” and wrote several episodes of the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” He is working on the Starz show “Da Vinci’s Demons.” His most recent play “The Royale,” a study of a black boxer desperate for a chance to fight a white champion, debuted in May in at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.
Ramirez, who never took a television writing class in school, gives credit to “Broadsword” for opening doors in the television industry. He feels as a writing sample, it caught the attention of people used to reading action and sci-fi movie scripts and TV pilots.
“I think they saw ‘Broadsword’ as something different and not another kitchen sink story,” Ramirez says. “I’ve had many conversations with people who wanted to option the play and that’s cool. But at the same time I think it’s kind of grounded in the theater and I’m not sure it would work on film.”
Ramirez admits television writing is pushing him in different directions, but in a good way.
“My plays are getting more intimate and my television and screenwriting is getting bigger and bigger,” Ramirez says. “For instance, on ‘Da Vinci’ I write these big swashbuckling action scenes. If you’re doing both of these right, they demand completely different things from you and that is challenging, but also very satisfying.”
Mary Houlihan is
a Sun-Times freelance writer.