"In high school, I edited Shawnee Mission East's 'zine, The Eastonian, and I used to have this dream that it was called The Evaporated Milk Society Newsletter," Cohn says. "It's evocative of the idea of something that becomes something else when you add a third element."
Cohn returned to the area earlier this year with a bachelor's degree in fine arts from New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing, which has spawned welcome theater voices such as Moises Kaufman, writer of Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project. "I served as a production intern, script coordinator and dramaturg on Laramie Project," Cohn says of the brilliant play about Matthew Shepard's murder that will open the Unicorn Theatre's next season. Though he thought about offering assistance for that production, he decided "that would be like me saying, 'I know better than you how to do this.'"
His focus is instead on this weekend's premiere of Sabbatai, a show he admits is a hard sell. "It centers on the story of Sabbatai Sevi, a seventeenth-century Jewish messianic figure who converted to Islam at the height of his influence," he says. "I have a preoccupation with messianic figures; there's something essential going on in the need of humanity to personify and humanize their hope."
Cohn says the story was "built from scratch, conceived, written, adapted, choreographed and discovered by the group during the four-month rehearsal process. We just started with a central theme and some rules about how it would be carried out." He admits that his previous work "has been done with a heavy hand. Maybe I have a little bit of a defiant quality. I'm saying, 'Come and see if this is interesting to you,' because I think it addresses why theater is worthwhile."
The show's mix of visual storytelling, dance and music -- as well as Evaporated Milk Society's continuing transformation of its East 18th Street space -- is Cohn's way of reaching outside theater's conventions. "It's easy for me to fall into the trap of using theatrical tricks," he says, noting that he might have been able to rely on convention to make the piece more accessible. "Using conventional theater language, it would banalize the show's potential," he says. "I would rather have it fail than try to fix it using a trick."
Cohn recalls being asked whether he was directing a company of actors or a company of performance artists. He does not think there's a clearly drawn line between the two. He'll give potential audience members this much, however: "The show has a plot, lights go up and down, people sit in chairs, and you'll be able to identify characters."