Monday, June 1, 2009

Gifts Simple and Sultry

Gifts Simple and Sultry
By Tom Wachunas

The fascinating genre of the short play poses some distinctly unique challenges for playwrights. Unlike novelists or screenplay writers, they don’t have the luxury of indulging in slow character developments or elaborate subtexts. When a short play works well, it’s largely due to the playwright’s diligent attention to selling the audience that old show biz truism, “buy the premise, buy the bit.” And to be sure, imaginative directing and solid acting can’t hurt. For the most part those provisos are firmly evident in the third annual New Works Festival, “From Script To You,” at the North Canton Playhouse.

Originated in 2007 by creator, producer and artistic director Jeremy Lewis, and Mary McManaway, North Canton Playhouse artistic director, the festival is designed to promote new works (short plays) by writers from across the U.S. in collaboration with local directors and actors ensembles. This year’s seven entries are, as in the past two years, an edgy and entertaining mix of content and styles, ranging from psychologically complicated to simply romantic. Additionally, this year’s plays appear to share a loose theme of human dreams and plans in various stages of either coming together or falling apart.

“Marge Zero/Karen O,” a writing debut by Justin Edenhofer, and directed by Meredith Borling (both students at Malone University), is a funny, sometimes caustic word duel between two roommates, each inventorying the other’s shortcomings as a roommate. Their bickering is all the more exasperated by their inability to get a new TV operational. In a pleasantly surreal call- and- response exchange, Alyssa Pearson as Marge is bellowing her objections about the unjust treatment she received after a car accident she caused. Simultaneously, air-headed Karen, played very convincingly by Ashley White, has called up the TV manufacturer and is largely oblivious to Marge’s complaints. Flummoxed and confused, Karen hilariously fumbles her way through customer service phone prompts as if punctuating her roommate’s diatribe.

Meredith Borling also directed “Bad Connection,” a story where phone communication – or lack of it - is much more central to the story. Written by Judi Kristy, a somber phone conversation unfolds between Ellie, a housewife played by Ashley Frederick, and David, the love of her life. Both Frederick, and Rick Bowling as David, turn in believable renditions of people on the cusp of life-changing decisions. Ellie announces her intention to divorce her husband and live the life she always wanted with David who, not prepared to deal with this news over the phone, has serious reservations. The story ends, unresolved, closing with Ellie’s haunting (and perhaps prophetic) line to her husband as he walks into the kitchen, “Hey, Bob, don’t forget to take out the garbage.”

While there may be a thoughtful and subtly noir nihilism afoot in “Bad Connection,” the two entries here by Michael Laurenty, both from his full-length “Dream Café,” and directed by Jeremy Lewis, offer a considerably lighter approach to couples seeking romance. The dialogue between the characters Sara and Jason in “Twice Concise” is a clever, rhythmic one-word-at-a-time request for a date, and playfully accomplished by Betsy Marinucci and Michael D. Miller. Both performers’ delightfully choreographed facial expressions effectively pick up where words leave off. And if “Sailing” - the second piece from “Dream Café” – lacks depth as literature for the stage, it nonetheless elicits genuinely warm, if not awkwardly charming (which is appropriate to the story) performances by Ken Reinoehl and Vera Rippert.

There’s plenty of warmth and charm, too (with a healthy dose of humorous sexual innuendo), in “Backstage,” written and directed by Stephen Thomas. Nate Ross plays Jake and B. Ruth Hitchcock plays Ashley in this story of two thespians basking in the glow of their just-finished stage performance. Both performers deliver a sharp sort of tango as they negotiate tricky territory between fiction and reality.

“Suddenly Nobody,” written by Noell Wolfgram Evans, and directed by Jeremy Lewis, is an absorbingly ingenious foray into absurd comedy with moral, or at least philosophic, undertones. Mary Mahoney, in her role as Fontaine, a one-legged lion tamer, is the picture of giddy delight as she has miraculously grown a new leg overnight. As she gushes about dreams of a whole new life before her, David, her business manager, sees his world disintegrating. In that role, Stephen Thomas delivers an explosively maniacal, gut-splittingly funny portrait of an incorrigible, high-strung profiteer. Stacy Essex, playing Ann, his somewhat daffy secretary, is engaging to watch, too, as she weighs her loyalties and sees her boss’s true colors.

Lewis also directed the evening’s “dark side” entry, “My Sexy Doll,” written by Stanley Toledo. Here, significantly more than in “Bad Connection,” nihilism takes the stage, but in the guise of comedy, or perhaps more precisely, a cartoon a la Alfred Hitchcock. Laura Swinsburg is mesmerizing in her role of Doll, cavorting about the stage in exaggerated sexy poses for her traveling salesman lover, Darling, who has a wife. Darling indeed. In that role, Rick Bowling is convincing as the paramour with a cavalier attitude, a woman-in-every-port agenda, and who soon finds out his lifestyle is about to bite him in the worst way.

By now it’s fair to say that this annual New Works Festival is a serious and commendable commitment on the part Jeremy Lewis, Mary McManaway and the North Canton Playhouse, which already has a remarkable history of producing very fine theatre. In light of greater Canton’s ever-burgeoning arts scene, the addition of this particular venue for writers from outside our region enhances its visibility and viability as rich ground for new voices.

Photo: Mary Mahoney as Fontaine, and Stephen Thomas as David, in “Suddenly Nobody,” a short play written by Noell Wolfgram Evans. The 2009 New Works Festival at the North Canton Playhouse in the McManaway Studio Theatre, Through June 6.
(330) 494 – 1613

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