Inhale. If you’re in Key West, you may detect a hint of jasmine or frangipani in the air, perhaps with a base note of salt from the ocean that surrounds us. Wherever you are, that brief pause may take you to another moment, another location, another world entirely. The sense of smell is powerful. The right scent can take you on a journey and transport you through time, kindling memories and powerful emotions along the way.
Such is the premise behind “Darius,” the elegant, evocative and magical play by Paris-based playwright Jean-Benoît Patricot, making its U.S. premiere on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 5-6 at The Studios of Key West’s Helmerich Theater.
The play, told in epistolary format, is an exchange of letters and emails between Claire Chambaz, a Parisian woman with a son afflicted with a rare and debilitating syndrome called CHARGE, and Paul Lagarce, a famous French perfumer. Over time, CHARGE syndrome has deprived Claire’s son, Darius, now 19 years old, of all his senses. Now with only the sense of smell remaining, Claire appeals to Paul to create a series of scents that will help her dying son summon the most joyful moments of his short life. Bittersweet and poignant, the play is an unforgettable journey into olfactory memory.
Similar in format to A.R. Gurney’s popular play “Love Letters,” performed at The Studios in 2016, the play stars past Studios’ Board President Rosi Ware as Claire, and current Board President Stephen Kitsakos as Paul, all guided by the hand of esteemed stage director Murphy Davis, who have reunited after their successful collaboration in “Love Letters” a few short years ago.
“The first time I read ‘Darius’ I was deeply moved,” says Rosi, who has a strong connection to disabled adults through her long-time volunteer work for the Monroe County Association for ReMARCable Citizens.
“The work I do with MARC gives me a window into the lives of the developmentally disabled and helps me understand Claire’s experience, which allowed me to prepare for the role in a deeper sense. There are so many moments in the play that resonate with me and remind me of specific individuals I work with. Many of the developmentally disabled are not destined to live long lives. This play reminds us all that every moment is precious because you want to put as much into it as possible.”
For the innovators at The Studios, simply mounting “Darius” as a typical theatrical performance was not enough to convey the depth of emotion in the piece and the striking impact our olfactory sense has on our memories, thoughts and feelings. Each evening, a select group of preferred ticketholders will enjoy a small plates dinner before the performance, inspired by the script and designed by Chef Martha Hubbard of Isle Cook Key West.
This interdisciplinary endeavor was a natural collaboration for The Studios’ current Board President Stephen Kitsakos. “During my tenure as president of the board of The Studios, I want to be known for things that are edgy and out of the ordinary,” he explains. “Rosi and I are not really known as actors, but we’ve both served as president of the board and we’d worked together in the past on a very barebones production of ‘Love Letters,’ which was a huge hit and helped us raise much needed funds for the new rooftop at The Studios. We had such a great experience working together that Rosi has been asking me since then if we could find a similar project. As you might expect, there aren’t many plays out there for two people our age that adhere to the epistolary format.”
But as ever, the magic of Key West bestowed Stephen with a chance encounter that led him straight to “Darius.” “I was invited to a cocktail party hosted by two acquaintances, Frank and Frank, who live part-time in Cooperstown, N.Y., and are very involved with the Glimmerglass Opera Company,” he recalls. “Through Glimmerglass, they had met a woman I hired to sing the leading role in my NEA-funded opera adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ and they wanted to meet me. During the party, one of the Franks said he had a play he wanted me to read. Naturally, my guard immediately came up but as he described the epistolary nature of the play and its sensory premise, the bells in my head went off. I knew Rosi and I just had to snap up this opportunity.”
In the play, young Darius is nearing the end of his difficult life. Claire writes a desperate letter to Paul, begging him to help offer her son an opportunity to relive happy memories of the past, when they were able to travel the world together. She asks him to create a series of scents that will evoke happy memories for Darius by utilizing both smells of his favorite cities and smells that hew closer to home. Although she offers to fund his travels to the various aromatic locales on her list, Paul initially declines her proposal. Having lost his wife, he has withdrawn into his grief and has dramatically downsized his business. Claire ultimately does something to intrigue him (no spoiler alerts here!) and they form a partnership. Although Darius is the MacGuffin — the driving plot device — he is never revealed to the audience. We only know about the boy through exchanges by which Paul’s creations are transmitted and Claire recounts Darius’ reactions to them.
“The play had a very successful commercial run in French in Paris,” Stephen explains, “and The Studios is so proud to announce that we have the right to present not only the U.S. premiere, but the first English language translation of ‘Darius.’ And our director, Murphy Davis, has imagined this exchange on a multilevel set that brings us both close to each other and far away, but never in the same moment together.”
The special two-night performance of “Darius” is a fundraiser to help finance the remaining costs of constructing Hugh’s View, the rooftop terrace of The Studios that will be open to the public by the end of 2019, and will offer an unparalleled view of the Gulf and Atlantic from one of the highest points on Key West.
“Our performance of ‘Darius’ is one of three special events we’re doing to close the gap in funding for Hugh’s View,” Stephen says. “We wanted to incorporate the senses into our performance, so we chose to pair the play with a tasting dinner and who better to interpret our imagination but Chef Martha Hubbard? Through the generosity of Isle Cook, The Roost and The Fleming Street Faith Center, who have donated all of the food, Martha has created a menu based on her inspiration from the play. Martha was over the moon excited about this opportunity because it gave her the chance to indulge her artistic side. Since the script is all about taste and scents, she chose to create a small plates menu that exploits all of those smells and tastes and scents and notes, using inspiration from the many locations Claire asks Paul to interpret.”
Martha echoes Stephens’ enthusiasm. “Last year, Isle Cook participated in The Studios’ Arts and Eats, which brought my mind back to food as art and theater. Essentially, our Isle Cook dinners are dinner theater on a very small scope. To me, The Studios’ Arts and Eats event is a validation in our community that art and food go together. I’m so excited that The Studios is open to collaborating on dinner and a play. ‘Darius’ is the most amazing opportunity for me — to adapt a menu to a play is quite a process. I feel like most humans take for granted our senses, so this production hopefully will rekindle a universal appreciation for all of our senses and how integral they are to our day-to-day operations.”
“Martha really took this as the ultimate creative challenge,” Stephen adds. “Unfortunately we can only fit 64 diners into the theater each night, but everyone in the audience will get to indulge in Martha’s dessert at the end of the evening. And we’re so thrilled that Martha has created a dessert specifically designed to exploit the scents and smells of Key West.”
Though the play is fairly short, Rosi and Stephen have taken great pains to suffuse their performances with as much intensity as they can muster. “This play is difficult because both of the characters take an incredible emotional journey from the very first letter to the last letter,” Stephen acknowledges. “Both Claire and Paul are changed through their partnership, as well as through their relationship with Darius. Our preparation for and emotional commitment to ‘Darius’ are substantial, especially because both of these characters have their own emotional baggage that they have to reconcile at the same time as they build their connection to one another.”
“To me, this is totally different from ‘Love Letters,’” Rosi affirms. “Here, we’re trying to reproduce the multiple sceneries that we’re talking about, not literally but through the words in these letters. Our performances must bring these places to life more than we can convey by purely reading, so we’re less reciting and more imbuing the words with the personalities of the people and the actions they are effecting.”
Rosi’s and Stephen’s ability to enliven the audience’s senses rests on the broad, accomplished shoulders of director Murphy Davis, who has fully inserted himself into the actors’ artistic process. “From my standpoint, what strikes me about the piece is that because it deals with the senses and the particular olfactory sense as well as the sense of touch, it felt like from the beginning it couldn’t be stagnant,” Murphy begins. “This play deals with loss and the ephemeral quality of life, so it felt like it had to physically move because there is something ethereal happening between Paul and Claire. For me, ‘Darius’ is about being aware in the moment and being grateful of whatever moment that you are aware of enough to imbue that moment with gratitude because knowing that those are the moments that make up our life — that’s what makes a life rich and profound. What I realize is that I’m the kind of director who needs to know what the story is about for me personally — not only the plot, but I have to know the emotional story, because without the emotional story who gives a hoot if I’m watching a series of events being put together with no underlying connection of what it is to be human in this circumstance? That’s why we’re doing theater; we’re trying to have that wonderful release from identification with what it is to be a human being.”
According to Murphy, Rosi and Stephen, their overall aim through “Darius” is to encourage us all to explore and indulge our senses and to allow those senses to transport us wherever they may. “I’ve always been very aware that smell is the best thing for creating memories, but it’s scientifically true,” Rosi says. “And those memories also arouse emotions, so
I think this play is celebrating that scent is a wonderful thing because it gets people to think about how our senses impact our everyday lives.”
“Our job is to make sure that we enlighten the audience to their senses,” Murphy says. “And we want to encourage everyone to be aware that the olfactory sense is integrated into every part of our cells, meaning it’s all a part of the same thing — those memories and those feelings are what living a life is about and that’s why Claire knows she can continue to give her son a life and a sense of response to the world.”
The playwright, Jean-Benoît Patricot, has requested that in lieu of a royalty, The Studios donate any royalty to the organization looking for a cure for CHARGE Syndrome. “Darius” will run Jan. 5 and 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets for preferred seating, which includes the small plates dinner, wine, performance and dessert are $125. General seating, which includes the performance and dessert following, are $55. Additional information can be found at www.tskw.org. ¦