Something Rob Mersola said to me during the latter half of our sit-down interview really struck me; first at face value, totally surface, and later like a fist coming at me. He said, ‘It’s about how family dysfunctions are handed down generation through generation.’
Given what this play is about, and what happens ultimately–I won’t give it away–that statement serves to season the play with a rich, nutty flavor. One may even interpret it as a modern day Greek Tragedy for the Millenials. But, fear not; for those who don’t want to experience it at theatre-nerd level, there’s laughing and squirming aplenty…though you may also be pleasantly surprised at how touching it is.
Rob Mersola’s new play, Luka’s Room, is the 17th World Premiere production for Rogue Machine, and the second offering of Season 8. I saw the first invited dress; a performance as raw as it could possibly get, but man, raw works for this play. I walked out of there impressed, creeped out, and moved. The acting, writing, direction, and design are all superb. These are staples of a Rogue Machine production, sure, but what happens in Luka’s Room is, finally, unexpected. You’ll see what I mean.
You may remember Mr. Mersola’s most recent Rogue Machine production, another World Premiere, Dirty Filthy Love Story, directed by Co-Artistic Director Elina De Santos, and starring Jennifer Pollono, Burl Moseley, and Joshua Bitton (the director of Luka’s Room, a longtime friend and collaborator of Mersola). Dirty Filthy Love Story began as an Off-The-Clock production, graduated to the Mainstage, then extended its popular run over at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz. Sure, it received numerous nominations and awards, 99% of Rogue plays do, but more importantly, it set the stage for Mersola to be able to come back and give us this–something perhaps even dirtier and filthier?
I sit with Rob in a small, overstuffed, airless backroom prop closet at the theater, permeated by the sounds of actors running lines and the grunts and thumps of a ferocious fight-call happening out on stage:
TC: Let’s do this.
RM: Let me fascinate you.
TC: Ha. Good tag line! Okay tell me about your journey. Your journey of theatre: how’d you get from wherever-you-started to where-you-are-now?
TC: Yeah. Tell me everything. What’s been your mojo?
RM: Well, I have been seriously studying theatre since I was 14 years old. In school, and with a performance troupe that was in the community.
TC: Where was that? Where’d you grow up?
RM: Hermosa Beach.
TC: A native? Congratulations! How rare! So, did you decide, at some point, that you wanted to do this with your life?
RM: I just never stopped doing it. By the time I was finished with grad school, I wasn’t prepared to do anything else.
TC: Where was undergrad?
RM: CSUN (Cal State University Northridge)
TC: And grad?
RM: Rutgers. But for acting. I never studied playwriting. I moved to NYC after grad school. I was auditioning for, and working with, every crappy artist and every crappy theater and at some point I said, ‘I think I can do this better.’ So, I sat down and wrote my first play. That was called Backseats and Bathroom Stalls, which was produced at The Kraine Theatre, and it was a huge success, with lines around the block to get in. It was awesome. And from there, I slowly kept writing plays.
They call it… what is it… it’s kind of like ‘The Seven Year Itch’, where a playwright writes their first play that gets well received…and then it’s seven years later before you hit the next one. And it feels like that was true for me, in a way.
TC: What brought you to LA from NYC?
RM: That play was optioned for a screenplay, and most of my friends had migrated out here… to get paid to act…
(We both laugh)
RM: And I also thought I would be making a movie, but…
(We laugh again)
TC: What was your first play out here?
RM: What’s Wrong with Getting Laid, and it was like Eugene Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, but then the characters started really asking what their own play was about. That was done at Improv Olympic, and was directed by a Second City improv teacher, Dave Rosowski.
TC: How did you find Rogue Machine?
RM: Well, we decided to do Backseats and Bathroom Stalls in LA. At The Lyric-Hyperion, and then it moved to The Coast Playhouse, at the same time that Small Engine Repair was running here. The casts were coming to see each others’ shows and we were all becoming friends. I finished my next play, and sat down with my producing partners, who said the play was too dark. I took it Jen Pollono, and she said, pretty much immediately, ‘Okay, we’re going into production. Now.’
And that was Dirty Filthy.
RM: It was initially born out of the TV show “Snapped”, from where I was crafting this character in my mind, and it wasn’t until I saw an episode of “Hoarders” where I was like, ‘I have never seen anything like this on stage. How can I take this character, for whom I had mapped her entire arc, and then put her into the Hoarder house? And that was how the story really came to life. And then it was, ‘Oh, Okay.’ That disease informed everything about her. And the love interest in it as well.
TC: So what was the impetus for writing Luka’s Room?
RM: I was crafting a play in my head that would kind of be like a modernized Noises Off (which I still want to write) but then this one morning I was driving to work, daydreaming, and this story popped into my head, and I went, ‘Ahhhhh’ and I went home and started writing it.
TC: So, how do you feel about this play?
RM: This has been a different one for me. It’s deeper, more realistic, it’s more truthful. I generally stick to farcical. I stick to Joe Orton-esque stuff.
This started out that way for sure; my first draft was a lot more on-the-surface. But John and Josh continually pushed me to make it deeper, to deepen it, and it became more of a tragic comedy. I feel like…in some ways…I am hoping that I have not lost my voice, my comical voice, but… it’s different. I’m nervous.
TC: Did you work on it a lot in rehearsals? Rewriting?
RM: We did a reading, then a month-long workshop, we met every weekend, then rewrites, and it got it almost to where it is now. There were still a few issues…I added an entire character, and through rehearsals…well, there were changes, but more tweaking and deepening, not overhauls. Molding the voices of the characters for the actors. Writing for them what I felt would be best for them.
TC: That’s very kind of you, actually. To nurture an actor like that. To write for an actor while they’re in process. I’m totally jealous. Do you do any other kind of writing?
TC: So what is it about plays? Why plays?
RM: I like the storytelling aspect and I like the production aspect a lot. I want to be involved, you know? I don’t want to just write it, and send it off somewhere. I am interested in the theatre part of theatre.
TC: What about the storytelling aspect of plays does it for you, specifically, in comparison to other forms of storytelling?
RM: I never learned to do anything but theatre, so there is no other medium for me.
TC: Do you read a lot of plays?
RM: Well, I went to theatre school for 300 years so I have read a lot of plays, and I have seen a lot of plays, but it is weird…I wouldn’t just pick up a play, any ol’ play on some random day, and read it. I might, on a whim, pick up some Aeschylus, but it has nothing to do with my own art. I don’t read others’ plays because I want to write plays. I read others’ plays because I am interested in theatre.
TC: Do you see a lot of theatre?
RM: I fucking love actors, so I go. I love theatre. I see a lot of bad plays, you can’t avoid it. But I have to go. I just love… I just love actors, and the whole thing.
TC: But, I find it is hard to see. Hard to experience. It’s hard, right? When you are yourself a theatre artist? I wish I could just be a normal person when I go see theatre. Like when I watch football, I have no fucking clue what is going on, and it titillates me.
RM: Well, I try to do that. Allow myself to believe, you know, to get caught up in whatever their truth is.
TC: What’s your feeling about the American theatre? Do you have any kind of a vision for it?
RM: I don’t think it has changed all that much in the past 200 years. But I’ve seen a huge flourish in LA theatre over the past 7 or 8 years. When I left NYC on the early 00s, I saw a huge decline in the quality of theatre there. I see theatre as a communal experience that has been happening since the beginning of time, but I don’t really see that it has changed all that much. I mean, here we’re hanging on the same streets with prostitutes and pot shops…but that’s okay. I mean, it’s not going to die. Theatre is not going to die.
(Vince Melocchi [cast and company member] walks in, grabs a prop…
RM: Oh, here’s another fascinating playwright right here.
VM: I’ll pay you for that later. Hey Tim.
TC: Hi Vince!
Vince smiles and goes)
TC: What is your proudest accomplishment in theatre thus far? What’s your ‘yeah bitch’ about it all?
RM: I’ve been trolling around theatre since I was 14. My ‘yeah bitch’ is that I’m actually still here. I’m painting a set until 2am. I am at rehearsal for 14 hours starting at 8am. It’s fun. I’m not fuckin’ Neil Labute, but I’ve done well for myself. I feel accomplished in what I do.
RM: I want them to get laid when they go home.
TC: My work is done.
RM: But, you know, I want people to be moved.
TC: So to speak…. I might… I mean, I might ask audiences to write in to this blog and tell me their post-Luka’s stories of getting laid. Speaking of: is access to sex on the internet killing intimacy in relationships?
RM: That is touched on a little bit, but it’s more of a metaphor. It’s about how family dysfunctions are handed down generation through generation. And also, I wanted to explore the idea that once something gets put out into the internet, it’s there. There’s no getting rid of of, it will live on in perpetuity. But, I’m not trying to make a statement about that, either. I’m not a statement kind of person. I’m not Tom Stoppard.
TC: No Stoppard, no Kushner. This isn’t a resounding 6-hour sociopolitical epic?
RM: No. It’s about human relations, human interactions, the character of people. Drawing characters. Humans… who just…take each other in and react against what happens in their life.
TC: How has Rogue Machine been a good artistic home for you?
RM: I first ever saw Small Engine Repair here, and realized that this was a theater that would understand my voice. And they did. They do. John Flynn has been so encouraging, pushing me to really make it better, fathering the play because he likes it, not because he thinks I’m going to make a million dollars for his theatre. He thinks my voice is interesting, and he wants to shepherd that. It’s really rewarding. This is the right place for this play. It’s a rough play. It’s kinda hardcore. I hope.
TC: We got some really good stuff and I thank you. But do me a favor: stay out of my bedroom.
Directed by Joshua Bitton
Featuring Alex Fernandez, Joanna Lipari, Nick Marini,
Vince Melocchi, and Sarah Scott
Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 7pm, Sundays at 3pm
(no performance 8/22)
For tix and info, click on the image: