About Face Theatre artistic director Andrew Volkoff and playwright A. Rey Pamatmat were initially reluctant to divulge just what troubling topics are explored in his 2014 play after all the terrible things I do, now receiving its Chicago debut courtesy of About Face Theatre.
"It's hard to talk about this play without giving away too much," Volkoff said. "It's one of those pieces that you follow along and then all of a sudden it changes direction in a way you didn't see coming. And then it changes direction again. I would describe it as a 'drama-thriller.'"
The play's premise sounds innocent enough. It focuses on a young gay writer named Daniel ( Colin Sphar ) who returns to his Midwestern hometown after college. Once there, Daniel takes a job at a bookstore owned by a Filipina woman named Linda ( Lisa Tejero ). Soon the two discover connections that go beyond their love of literature.
As a gay Filipino-American, Pamatmat makes it a point to include characters in his plays that reflect his own life. This was certainly reflected in Pamatmat's earlier acclaimed drama Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, which received an acclaimed Chicago production last year by First Floor Theater.
"It's very seldom that I write a play that doesn't include Filipino-American or Asian-American charactersthat's my life experience," said Pamatmat, adding that it wasn't part of an overarching plan to bring Asian or queer diversity to new American dramas. "It's just natural for me to write from my own perspective."
With after all the terrible things I do, Pamatmat wanted the challenge of writing a thriller with just two characters and a single setting. There were also personal reasons why Pamatmat set his drama in a bookstore.
"In order to write the play, I was putting in things that were very familiar to me, things that I have a great affection for," said Pamatmat, who added that he loved working a job in a bookstore while he was an undergrad at New York University. "A lot of the set dressing was really to comfort myself as I was tackling uncomfortable topics."
Pamatmat eventually revealed that bullying was what he wanted to explore in his play, though not from the usual perspective taken in most literature or dramas.
"It was very seldom that anyone ever thought about what causes bullying, or explores the motivation of the bullies themselves," Pamatmat said. "I wanted to write a piece that was about that particular issue, but from the other side."
"The bullying here crosses both culture and sexual orientation. That for me is really compelling," Volkoff said. "We think that we are living in a culture right now that is very focused on the result of bullying and what do we do for the victims of bullying in the world. I think Rey has taken a unique approach to that subject of bullying and making us see it in a different light."
When asked if the small cast and the single setting was another attractive aspect of producing Pamatmat's play, Volkoff only laughed because recreating a small-town bookstore onstage proved to be a big challenge. More than 120 boxes of books were bought from Half Price Books in Highland Park and Niles for Chelsea Warren's set design.
"We thought, 'What are we going to do with these books when we're done with them?' Because we don't have any space for this, so we've started looking into literacy programs and whatnot across Chicago. We're making sure that these books find new homes." Volkoff said. "Or maybe we should just have a book sale at the final show."
About Face Theatre's Chicago premiere of after all the terrible things I do continues through Sunday, April 10, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $35 and $20 for students and seniors; call 773-975-8150 or visit www.aboutfacethetre.org for more information .