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New play ‘The Moth and the Masked Man’ is a tale of love, grief and magical realism

From the poster for the new play "The Moth and the Masked Man."
Courtesy the artists
From the poster for the new play "The Moth and the Masked Man."

A play using magical realism to explore themes of grief, love and found family opens in Louisville this week. 

The Moth and the Masked Man,” running Thursday through Sunday at the MeX Theater, is set in Louisville’s Highlands. The story follows a college student known as the Wanderer, who hears whispers of a strange Masked Man, first from a fellow student after their mother’s death. 

Louisville playwright Clarity Hagan told WFPL News the relationships between the characters are the heart of the play.

“Those relationships can be so deeply important for dealing with grief, for coming to find other people who see you for who you are, and understand the invisible things you might be carrying with you,” they said. “Grief is so often one of those invisible things that people carry with them that, until you meet someone else who understands what you're carrying, it feels like you're alone.”

This is the first full-length, fully produced work for Hagan, who had a staged reading of the play at the Louisville Fringe Festival last year, presented by the Derby City Playwrights. 

They said it’s been “surreal to watch it all come together.”

“It has reminded me exactly why I love theater so much because it's been so special to watch this become something that is more beautiful than anything I could have created in isolation,” Hagan said.

Director Shannon Woolley Allison, who is also co-founder of Louisville’s Looking for Lilith Theatre Company and directed the 2021 reading of “The Moth and the Masked Man,” said the work interested her because she has spent the past few years dealing with a lot of loss. She had already discovered that theater could be a good conduit for processing bereavement after directing the 2021 play “Good Grief,” about an outside-of-the-box support group. 

“‘The Moth and the Masked Man’ uses this magical realism and this interacting with death as an actual entity that's walking around with us seems like the right part of my journey for me to deal with, and in a way that, this is going to sound strange, has been more fun than dark,” Woolley Allison said.

“The Moth and the Masked Man” also centers women and queer characters.

“There's also definitely an undercurrent of queerness, or overcurrent of queerness, running through the show,” Hagan said. “That's another aspect of something that is somewhat unseen, that once you meet other people who understand that aspect of your experience it's like life becomes more colorful.”

That aspect of the work resonated with Adama Abramson, who plays the Wanderer. Abramson also connected with how the play shows death and rebirth as something that can be experienced biologically, within relationships and one’s self.

“To have that be so beautifully articulated in a play, and to have that overt queerness, but have it not be the topic, have it just be another layer that exists in the world… just felt like something that was like a gift,” they said. 

The play has pulled Rocket Powell back to the stage after performing only sporadically for approximately a decade. Powell, who is the Moth in the production, said the character’s grief is both seen and validated.

“I think what I love about this particular version of found family is that it's about finding that family. It's about how a traumatized person learns to become comfortable with another traumatized person, essentially,” they said. 

Powell said they also empathize and agree with much of what the Moth says about death. They said it feels special to really mean the words coming out of the character’s mouth.

“The Moth and the Masked Man” is a work of processional theater, in which the audience physically moves with the actors from scene to scene. During the play, less than 30 people get to move throughout the MeX Theater, including backstage. It’s meant to be an intimate experience. 

Hagan has attended several processional projects and found them moving: “they showed me what theater could really be.”

On top of that, the pause of live theater brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic gave room for a number of theater artists to question the systems and structures that shape the industry, “starting to look at different hierarchies and see how we might be able to subvert or break those down.” 

Artists scrutinized whose stories were getting told, how work was created and who held the power, Hagan said. 

“But one of the relationships that I hadn't seen interrogated as much was the relationship between the audience and the actors because normally actors are literally put up on a pedestal, talking down to an audience,” they continued. 

They felt the processional style opened up the possibility for more collaboration between audience members and artists, a chance to be on the same level literally, but also interact with the work.

“It felt so in line with what I want to do as an artist and as a person… while also being something that when executed well is just something I find incredibly engaging,” Hagan said.

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