Frank McGuinness’ 1993 hostage drama “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” might seem like an unexpected choice for the director of such hardy perennials as “The Rocky Horror Show” and “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas,” but Robert Dennick Joki loves defying expectations. After all, this is the same multihyphenate talent who tackled heavy-duty fare such as the Pulitzer-winning “Wit” (with its exquisite, award-winning performance by Molly Galano) and classic Greek tragedies last year.
During a recent interview, Joki discussed the play, as well as it’s striking similarities to another show that he’s slated to direct this season (the Kander-Ebb jailhouse musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” at the Oakland Center for the Arts).
Q. Could you give us a brief synopsis of the story line?
A. The play revolves around an Irishman, an Englishman and an American who have been kidnapped and are being held hostage in a basement room in Beirut. As the three men fight to stay alive, they also strive to overcome their personal and political differences. It’s a dark play, but it’s also very funny. We watch as the three characters attempt to stay sane in a situation that would drive most people to the brink of madness.
Q. What initially attracted you to this play and made you want to direct it?
A. I designed props for a student production of the show about 10 years ago and have always loved the script. It was one of the first plays I ever really sat down and studied. I revisited it recently when we were looking for shows to do at the Oakland, but it never quite fit; or I was worried about finding the right actors, or I wasn’t ready to tackle it just yet. It’s a very difficult script. Parts of it are dramatic and heartbreaking, and portions are borderline absurdist. There’s also a lot of dialect work, not to mention the fact that the three characters are chained to a wall the entire time. It definitely makes blocking a challenge (laughs).
Q. Who’s appearing in the show?
A. Brandon Smith is the Englishman, Chuck Kettering is the Irishman and Dan Poppke plays the American.
Q. With a prison cell as its only setting, the stripped-down, minimalist quality of “SWWOM” seems like a perfect fit for the Calvin Center’s intimate chapel space. Was that one of the attractions for you?
A. I find myself attracted to a lot of plays these days where the lighting and scenery are minimal. It really pushes me to focus on the performances. Without fancy lights, sets, costumes and special effects, there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s just the audience, the actors and the experience.
Q. Hmmm. A couple of guys from different walks of life bond — and engage in fantasy projection — while sharing a jail cell. Were the parallels between “Someone” and your upcoming Oakland production of SDLqKiss of the Spider Woman” accidental or deliberate? Except for the drag (and the musical numbers, of course), they almost sound like they could be the same play.
A. It’s funny you should mention that because one of the other shows I was looking at for next season was “Raised in Captivity” by Nicky Silver. I could have done a whole “men behind bars” theme for 2011 (laughs). This is actually the first all-male cast I’ve ever directed. I usually stick to scripts that have stronger roles for women. But I’m always trying to step outside my comfort zone and try new things. So far the experience has been terrific.
Q. Will you be using Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the (George) Gershwin standard that gives the show its title, or somebody else’s rendition of the song?
A. Ella’s version will definitely be appearing in the show, since it’s specifically referred to in the dialogue. But I’m toying with the idea of using some other versions as well.
Q. You were originally slated to direct another show at Rust Belt this spring but ultimately decided to put it on the back burner until November. What else can we expect to see at Rust Belt over the next few months?
A. My next major project will be “When I Knew ... and How It Saved Me,” a fundraising event I coordinate every year. It began with a blog I wrote in 2008 that got a lot of attention, and I eventually turned it into a performance piece incorporating the work of other local writers. The goal was to put a face on the local LGBT community. This is our third year of staging the production, and the funds generated this year will benefit inner-city schoolchildren in the greater Youngstown Area.