Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:
November 22, 2011 — Some characters are gods, goddesses and heroes. And then there's Helen, said to be the most beautiful woman in the world.
Student playwright Matthew Minnicino had a lot of rich material to draw upon for his original play, "Troy is Burning," which the University of Virginia Drama Department presents nightly at 8 in the Helms Theatre from Nov. 30 through Dec. 3. There will be 2 p.m. matinee performances Dec. 3 and 4.
Minnicino, a fourth-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, is majoring in drama and English with a focus on Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. He describes "Troy is Burning" as a "post-modern Greek tragic comedy, like Sophocles and Euripides, but the dialogue is modernistic and anachronistic."
Playwriting professor Doug Grissom is impressed with Minnicino's work. "This is an incredibly accomplished and mature work," he said. "At the same time, it does have a vitality and freshness of a young person's perspective."
Growing up, Minnicino said he was fascinated by mythology from reading kids' versions of Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" to seeing the 1963 film "Jason and the Argonauts" with animation by Ray Harryhausen.
"I am not a student of mythology, but wanted to use the characters and to be modern," he said. "I want to keep people remembering the stories."
Minnicino, a native of Leesburg, first drafted a script in high school at Notre Dame Academy, now Middleburg Academy, in Middleburg, and brought a scene to Grissom's playwriting class to workshop it.
"It was apparent that he was attempting something quite epic in scope," said Grissom, who subsequently worked with Minnicino in an independent study class to develop the play. "As the work went on, I was amazed by how well he was pulling it off; each scene was rich and full, the characters were fascinating, the story clear and there was wonderful humor as well."
Although he did not share the play with his English professors, Minnicino said their influence is in every word, phrase and character portrayal. "What I have learned is how many layers there are to great literature and through close reading how one word can be powerful and reference other things that happen later in the piece.
"I have to make every word count."
Minnicino also called on his immersion into the world of Shakespeare to help hone his craft. While in high school, he attended the summer program at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, where in addition to acting in four plays, he learned about how the Bard of Avon used verse, text, movement and history.
"I've always been a big Shakespeare fan," he said.
Since then he has been involved in the Northern Virginia Empty Chair Theatre Company's summer productions and educational programs. The ensemble explores innovative productions of classic works.
Two contemporary playwriting inspirations are Charles M. Mee, for the way he reimagines stories in a collage-like way, and Sarah Ruhle, whose adaptation of the Eurydice myth Minnicino described as "poetic without overdoing it."
Through two stage readings of "Troy is Burning," organized by Grissom with local actors, Minnicino continued to develop the script.
"It was sensational," he said. "That let me see what worked and what didn't."
All was in preparation for submitting the play for consideration for the 2011-12 Drama Department season.
"I wanted Matt's play considered for our season because it's exciting to have scripts written by students themselves," Grissom said. "And while most of the time our playwriting students write shorter one-acts, Matt's play is not only strong but full-length, and so it could provide a full evening of theater."
Minnicino said that when drama chair Tom Bloom told him the play was selected, "I was floored completely. It has been a real dream project since then."
Drama professor Richard Warner, who is directing the play, said he found it "witty, wise and ambitious."
"He's a new, young writer taking on the Trojan War! Bringing it to life!" he said.
The action is epic: 14 characters and 20 scenes filled with violent deaths and lots of stage combat. "The company and I had to find a way to build a Trojan horse on stage ... with six actors inside the structure," Warner said.
Once the play was in production, Minnicino was able to see it evolve firsthand. He auditioned and won the part of King Priam, and thus has been available for consultation and further learning his craft.
"There's nothing like having your author present every night of rehearsal in case a script alteration needs to be explored," Warner said. "We had many in-depth sessions where we discussed every scene, every moment of the piece, making cuts, shifting passages, changing words. I even asked Matt to write a new scene to begin the second act."
As an actor, Minnicino said he's able to remove himself from the role of the playwright. "As a playwright you have to let go of your script. I see the actors experiment with the text and see the roles evolve in ways I had not anticipated," he said.
Minnicino is absorbing everything he can from the experience. He's applying to graduate schools to study playwriting and wants to purse that field but also teach.
Tickets for "Troy is Burning" are available at the U.Va. Arts Box Office in the lobby of the Culbreth Theatre online or by calling 434-924-3376.