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The ‘Absolute Brightness’ of Celeste Lecesne

PLANNING TO WATCH?

What: Celeste Lecesne’s “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey”

Where: Presented as a streaming, pay-per-view production by Cinnabar Theater.

When: January 22-31, as an on-demand video presentation. You can watch it any time during the period the video is available.

Cost: $25, available for 48 hours.

Information and tickets: CinnabarTheater.org.

For New York playwright-actor-novelist Celeste Lecesne — formerly known as James Lecesne — 2020’s massive shutdown of theaters across the country has been devastating. Lecesne, who uses the pronouns he and they, is the author of “The Absolute Brightness of Leornard Pelkey,” a one-actor play that was adapted from their own 2008 YA novel “Absolute Brightness.” In 2015 and 2016, the play enjoyed a long series of performances featuring Lecesne himself, playing nine different characters in a tale that is part mystery, and part a celebration of the power of being different. The play has since been published by Dramatists, Inc., and now other performers are stepping up and taking on the actorly tour-de-force that Lecesne originated.

Given that theaters remain closed, of course, such performances are necessarily done as virtual, online-only events. Beginning this weekend, Cinnabar Theater presents a two-weekend, online run of “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” with Nathan Cummings directing and Mike Pavone playing the narrator, a detective named Chuck, along with all the people Chuck encounters while investigating the disappearance of the flamboyant and unashamedly original Leonard Pelkey.

“Like everyone else in the theater, I miss the camaraderie of gathering together in a dark space, having someone tell us a story,” Lecesne says, speaking on the phone from New York. “There’s something so magical about it. But I think one of the things about a solo piece that’s so interesting is that it really requires an audience member to use their brain and their imagination in a way that maybe another type of production doesn’t.”

For that reason, Lecesne believes “Leonard Pelkey” will work particularly well as a streaming production.

“As a person who’s written a fair number of solo shows, one of the things I try to do is inspire the audience to design the costumes, and the set, and the lighting, just sort of really see it in their mind’s eye,” Lecesne explains. “It allows us to use our imaginations in a really positive way, which I think we all desperately need right now. And along with using our imaginations, watching a streaming version is also a bit like watching TV, and we all know how to do that.”

Lecesne says this will be only the second time watching another actor perform the play.

“Until now, the only time I’ve seen anyone else perform this piece was when my understudy did it, when I did the show off Broadway in New York,” Lecesne says. “He had one afternoon where he did the show for his friends and family, and other people he wanted to invite, and I went as a courtesy to him. And I have to say, it was a little odd. It was like watching someone else walk around in your clothes. I think of the characters in the show as so real, that when I see them performed by another actor, it’s like, ’Oh, oh, that’s right, they’re characters!’”

Lecesne does plan to watch the Cinnabar production, and says they are looking forward to seeing what Pavone does with the characters.

“He’s got a good name, that’s for sure,” laughs Lecesne. “Mike Pavone is a very good name for any actor who gets to play Chuck, the narrator. It’ll be nice to revisit the piece and see it through someone else’s imagination and psyche, even if it feels a little strange not to be doing it myself.”

Lecesne is the screenwriter of the 1996 Oscar-winning short film “Trevor,” the quirky and delightful story of a young man coming to grips with his own identity. The film, which deals with themes of suicide, inspired The Trevor Project, a nationwide, 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ+ youth. In 2013, Lecesne adapted “Trevor” into a YA novella, and the story has since been adapted into a musical. Titled “Trevor: The Musical,” it was to have opened off Broadway in early 2020, but of course, was called off due to the shutdown.

“Those poor people are probably so traumatized,” says Lecesne of the cast and crew. “They were really just days away from beginning previews. It was a big disappointment, because they had worked very hard to get it to that point, and now it’s in limbo until further notice.”

As the creator of the story that inspired so many different offshoots, Lecesne remains delighted, if sometimes a little surprised, that so much has sprung up from relatively humble origins.

“For me, ‘Trevor’ is something I wrote in the ’90s, and started performing as part of an off-off-off Broadway show called ‘Word of Mouth,’“ Lecesne explains. ”It was just a little 10-minute bit within a larger piece of theater. And to think that that little 10-minute piece expanded to a 16-minute film, and has done so much in the world, it’s a big reminder of just how powerful some stories can be, and how much good they can do under the right circumstances. In this case, it’s had something to do with saving tens of thousands of lives, which I find extraordinary.

PLANNING TO WATCH?

What: Celeste Lecesne’s “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey”

Where: Presented as a streaming, pay-per-view production by Cinnabar Theater.

When: January 22-31, as an on-demand video presentation. You can watch it any time during the period the video is available.

Cost: $25, available for 48 hours.

Information and tickets: CinnabarTheater.org.

“When something like that happens in your life,” they continue, “you have to stand back and just acknowledge it as the grace that it is. It’s something that often comes along right at the time that it’s needed, and starts doing the work it needs to do. I suppose gratitude would probably be the overriding emotion I have whenever I think about anything to do with ‘Trevor.’”

Lecesne, more than most playwright-novelist-screenwriter-actors, appears committed to adapting each new work into other forms of art — books into plays, plays into movies, movies into books. It seems that every Lecesne title has two or three variations.

“I just keep going back to the well,“ they laugh. ”With ‘Absolute Brightness,’ after writing the novel, I just wasn’t finished with it. Between the time that the novel came out and the time I adapted the play, things happened in the world that I felt needed addressing. That story seemed like a good way to address my concerns about young queer youth, about how they were living their lives.“

But Lecesne’s reasons for adapting the book into a stage piece had just as much to do with reaching adults as finding new mediums to tell the story.

“The novel was a YA novel,” intended for teenagers, Lecesne says, “and I also wanted to speak to an older audience, to help them understand something about the contribution that queer people make, especially young queer people.”

Which brings us back to the Cinnabar production.

“The world has changed a lot since I first started doing this,” he says. “So I’m really curious to see how the piece holds up, and what it has to say now. The questions about standing up against evil, about how evil is allowed to perpetuate itself, those have always been a part of the show. But, four or five years later, I’m excited to see how the play speaks to the time we are living in now. That’s one of the great things about art, is that it can really speak to the time it’s in, Shakespeare being the greatest example of that. Art can be rooted in the time it was made and yet still speak so eloquently about today. I love that.”

True to form, Lecesne is currently in the process of adapting “Absolute Brightness” into a film.

“I love these characters so much,“ Lecesne continues. ”I get so involved with them and so invested. They seem like real people to me, so I want to keep them employed.“

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