Desert Companion

One 2 Watch: Ruth Pe Palileo

She writes and directs edgy, off-the-wall plays — staged on a coupon-clipping budget

When a specialist in the plays of Samuel Beckett with a Ph.D. from Dublin’s Trinity College makes her Vegas directorial debut with David Mamet’s somber “The Shawl,” you expect someone tall, dour and Celtic — not short, merry and Filipino. Ruth Pe Palileo’s circuitous journey to Vegas has taken her from Bugasong, on the shores of the Sulu Sea, through Kalamazoo, Detroit, Paris, Strasbourg, Dublin and Chicago before setting up shop in Sin City. From that unlikely base, she’s striking out into theater on a nationwide basis. But Pe Palileo’s biggest detour was a collegiate career shift that saw her take a degree in microbiology, followed by a 10-year career in patent law.

“One day, this sculptor said, ‘How many pages a day do you write a week on patents?’” He did the math and calculated that Pe Palileo was writing the equivalent of five plays or one novel a month. “And I was so mad!” That realization set her on a life-changing, five-year Irish sojourn that included directing two Beckett works, helping mount several Harry Potter-based “happenings” that raised money for Children of Chernobyl Charities and creating two plays for homeless children.

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Much of Pe Palileo’s work is driven by an ethnographic degree of immersion in her material — whether it reflects her native Filipino roots or her adopted Irish ones — as well as a strong desire for social engagement. But while most of her Las Vegas productions have been in intense, character-driven chamber dramas, her tastes run toward a large-scale and mythic concept of theater. Thus she’s perfectly comfortable in historical pageantry or plays staged for Chicago’s Capricon science-fiction convention, where her productions include Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog” ... a cosmos away from Beckett’s “Endgame” and “What Where.”

After earning her doctorate in Dublin, she returned to the U.S. to find that her parents had relocated from Detroit to Las Vegas, and she followed them. “You know what got me (about Vegas) was not even that there was no snow, but that people still decorated their houses with all the crazy ornaments and lights,” she recalls. “You do it to show up against the snow, right?”

She also discovered Vegas’ Fil-Am Heritage Association, for whom she wrote and directed two extravaganzas at Palace Station and Treasure Island: “Waves of Migration” and World War II-based “Letters to Lily.” Staging “Waves” required four dance troupes and a cast of 83. “That’s when I learned that directing shows is like directing traffic,” she says with a laugh. “I like to (just) see what happens, but it has to happen within a certain amount of order.”

Following her well-received 2009 “Shawl,” which played to sold-out houses at Las Vegas Little Theatre, Pe Palileo returned to LVLT for “Last of the Vegas Magicians.” She also staged “Lance and the Sisters of Christmas Past” for African-American troupe House of Tribes, while her own Ruthless Dramatics presented the revamped Greek tragedy “Ismene” last spring as a breast-cancer fundraiser.

It was a shoestring production, made possible by a string of Home Depot gift certificates. If that weren’t enough work, Pe Palileo was coordinating six other “Ismene” productions, from Newfoundland to Los Angeles. This month, she stages Ionesco’s “The Chairs” at The Box Office, produced by local Born & Raised Productions in association with CIRCA Pintig from Chicago. The latter is a Filipino-American troupe in Chicago with whom she frequently collaborates and where she wants to revive Erica Griffin’s recent Fringe Festival smash “Casa de Nada.” Vegas magnet school Explore Knowledge Academy has invited Ruthless Dramatics to revive Ismene in November.

Although Pe Palileo is very selective about what she directs, she’s in demand. In between acting as advisor to House of Tribes’ Fringe Festival production, Local Celebrity and assisting with Table 8 Productions’ Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium, Pe Palileo zipped up to Ohio and staged three new one-act plays in a 72-hour frenzy at the Cleveland Irish Festival.

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