Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sweet and Sour Brevities

Sweet and Sour Brevities

By Tom Wachunas

While a few of the offerings in this year’s “From Script to You New Works Festival” at North Canton Playhouse McManaway Studio Theater might be suitable grist for full-length plays, all of the seven short works here are vignettes complete unto themselves. You might call this evening a shot-gun style (there’s no intermission) compendium of meditations on life, love, sexuality, and death – 85 minutes of in-your-face theatre delivered by marvelously talented local directors and actors, with scripts from across the U.S.

“Lip Service,” written by Judith Christy and directed by Betsy Marinucci, is a solidly crafted, genuinely tender and funny scene between a hard-of-hearing elderly father, played by Ken Hechmeyer, and his daughter, played by Mary Mahoney. Hechmeyer is delightful as the opinionated sports nut watching television while Mahoney, valiant and loving in her patience, attempts to keep the mangled conversation sensible.

“Dinner Guest,” written by Stanley Toledo and directed by Bethany Taylor, starts out as a simple dinner conversation between a husband, Ben, and wife, Joan, discussing plans for their upcoming anniversary. But the meal turns into a very physical haunting as Ben wrestles with guilt over his recent affair with Karen, who is a vexing presence at the table and visible only to him. Matt Morgan deftly captures Ben’s growing panic and agitation as he fends off the accusatory Karen, played with slinky, sultry relish by Stacey Essex. Meanwhile, Krystian Bender is credible as the wife, increasingly suspicious of her husband’s cryptic outbursts.

There’s a ghost also in the play written by Susan Pearsall Apker and directed by Alyssa Pearson, an intriguing scenario called “Pookie/y.” The title is named for the child (either boy or girl) that parents Janie, played by Bethany Taylor, and Mel, played by Justin Edenhofer, never had. We meet the parents as they contemplate jumping from a cliff into a sea - real perhaps, but certainly metaphorical –of despair. As Pookie/y, Christie Messner is appropriately haunting as well as bubbly. Taylor and Edenhofer in turn deliver an engrossing picture of struggling with could’ves and would’ves.

The producer and creator (in collaboration with Mary McManaway) of the New Works Festival is Jeremy P. Lewis. This year (the fourth), he has directed four of the entries. Of those, “The Angel,” written by Nick Battilana, seems to be the most problematic (at least in the beginning) in terms of performance, perhaps due to the youth of the performers. Emily Remark’s portrayal of the child- angel who prepares another little girl for entry into the afterlife is somewhat stiff (opening night jitters?). Kylie Gambone as the little girl is similarly awkward, though not as noticeably pronounced. But in the closing moments, as they face the bright light of eternal paradise, they each, remarkably, embody a preternatural, giggly joy that’s worth the price of admission to behold.

“Chit-Chat,” written by Shannon Jamison, is a deceptively titled piece about a woman talking to her unseen husband as she dashes off overdue thank-you notes to friends and family. Mary Mahoney is nothing short of riveting as her casual chatter turns into an explosive moment of utterly real anger, then heartrending grief.

In “On Wings of Song,” written by Rollin DeVere, Michael Miller and David Burkhardt are hilarious in their roles as clownish cicadas emerging from years of subterranean existence, only to find that mating means quick death. Their masterful timing and rapid-fire wordplay evoke the stylings of Abbot and Costello, imbuing this comedic gem with memorable shine.

Eminently masterful and memorable, too, are Matt Morgan and Justin Edenhofer in the intense “Cody and Ishmael,” written by Edenhofer and S. Thomas. The work is memorable, though, more for its visceral performances than the morbid (and vaguely comedic) cynicism of the story. Edenhofer plays Cody, a cocky sociopath who ruthlessly prods his “disciple” in bloodlust, Ishmael (Morgan), into overcoming his necrophobia.

After the gut-splitting humor of “On Wings of Song,” edgy philosophizing about murder seems too jarring a close to this or any other evening. Maybe I’m too old-school, but it seems to me that if given a choice, always leave ‘em smilin’ when they go.

Fortunately it’s the evening’s grace and comedy notes that continue to resonate in my memory. That, along with the realization that greater Canton is blessed with directors and actors of the caliber seen here, and who give a strong voice to new works, is cause for celebration.

FROM SCRIPT to YOU, at the McManaway Theatre, inside Hoover High School. March 7 – 13, Sunday at 2:30p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8p.m., General Admission $10, for tickets call (330) 491-1693

Photo: Matt Morgan (with Stacey Essex as the corpse) in a scene from “Cody and Ishmael,” one of seven new short works for the stage in From Script to you: 2010 New Works Festival at the North Canton Playhouse McManaway Theatre.

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