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'Heavenly Fools' brings quirky, Chekovian angst to Mason Gross Playwrights Festival

"Heavenly Fools" by Amanda Horowitz was staged at the Mason Gross School of the Arts Playwrights Festival the weekend of October 13. – Photo by Courtesy of Robbie Acklen

To be a playwright is to have the whole world in the palm of your hand but only have the small stage to transcend one idea.

In the case of "Heavenly Fools," a play written by Amanda Horowitz, a Mason Gross School of the Arts graduate student, this world portrayed is an eccentric one full of desire, longing and regret, all surrounded by the ocean.

The production was showcased on the weekend of October 13 as part of the 2023 Mason Gross School of the Arts Playwrights Festival and starred the school's graduating BFA acting students as Horowitz’s intriguing ensemble cast of characters.

From the moment the lights hit the stage, it was obvious that "Heavenly Fools" was out of the ordinary in the best way possible. The play came to be when Horowitz had to create an adaptation based on the work of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov for an assignment.

When thinking about how Chekhov inspired her play, "It felt like a really good way to think about what happens to desire when the world feels so precarious," said Horowitz.

The plot of "Heavenly Fools" centers around these characters and their interconnecting relationships, as their inner feelings and needs come to fruition on the night of a party at Heavenly Fools Fishery.

Within the cast of characters, there's the not-so-progressive professor Martin, his aspiring writer daughter Stella, his former student Carl, the fishery owner and Martin's sister Vanessa, her daughter Joan, sex advice podcaster Jasper, "friends" Angie and Every and even some inhuman creatures such a trout and dinosaur.

These characters are confusing and hilarious at the same time, and you get to know them deeply throughout the 2-hour piece. Albeit not autobiographical, Horowitz mentioned that she recognizes herself in a lot of her characters and could once relate to the youthful yearning presented throughout the show, specifically with Stella's character.

She described the process of writing these characters and their gradual development as "assemblages of people I know, feelings I’ve had, things I’m curious about."

Not only are the characters a standout of the show, but the dialogue of “Heavenly Fools” is also something to remember. From quick jokes to serious monologues, it kept the audience either laughing or pondering.

On the relationship between character and dialogue, Horowitz said, "Language is just wild. You just sort of follow it, and it teaches you something."

Some noteworthy lines include "Sometimes I'm really stupid when I see something I want" and "When you know how bad it will be, can desire really exist?" as stated by Stella and Joan, respectively.

More than just dialogue, "Heavenly Fools" was also a fun visual experience. The play's technical elements, such as its lighting, were smartly designed to add an extra layer of whimsy — choices included the addition of a blue tint during some scenes that matched the setting's aesthetic and the feelings of the characters.

There's even a musical moment within the show at the start of the second act where the character of Joan sings "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)" by Irma Thomas.

Another interesting aspect of this production is that it allowed its actors to explore concepts within choreography and movement. This is where the experimental nature of the work really comes into play and where Horowitz’s strong visual art background and experience took form.

Horowitz was "way too shy" for theater growing up and was always an artist. She previously attended Maryland Institute College of Art and previously studied at Mason Gross in its Visual Arts graduate program.

But after gaining more project experience within her studies with different types of art, specifically through writing theater scripts and directing, Horowitz had an instinctive feeling that theater was where she needed to be.

Although the Mason Gross Playwrights Festival here at Rutgers has ended, this isn't the end for "Heavenly Fools." Horowitz plans to continue drafting this play and restructuring it now that she has seen it on stage. She is excited and curious to see where the blend of visual art and theater will take her next.

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