Sunday, May 8, 2011

Scriptly Speaking

Scriptly Speaking

By Tom Wachunas

For this, the fifth annual From Script To You New Works Festival presented by the North Canton Playhouse in its intimate McManaway Studio theater, producing artistic director Jeremy Lewis and his team received 246 script submissions (short, one-act plays) from around the country. Six very well crafted entries were selected to make either their Ohio or world premieres. Collectively, the content of this year’s festival is conceptually brighter than in the past. There’s less stormy, existential angst afoot. This is not to say that its many comedic moments aren’t generously balanced with thoughtful, engaging drama.

If there’s a relatively ‘lightweight’ entry in the group, it’s certainly the first play – “Perfect Strangers,” written by Peter Snoad from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and directed here by Moriah Ophardt. While resting after his mountain climb, Robert meets a chatty woman named Betsy who’s been spying on him. She reveals a grave, cathartic secret about herself which has imbued her life with an urgent mission, and she invites Robert, her “perfect stranger,” to participate in it. Tawny Burkhardt is infectiously charming as the nosy, insistent Betsy, while Chris Sailing, as Robert, is cautious (understandably so, given Betsy’s disarmingly invasive demeanor), yet still a bit too emotionally stiff and pre-occupied. Maybe he’s put off by what he thinks is Betsy’s hubris. But he seems to have a cathartic enough moment of his own in the last seconds of this feel-good thirteen minutes.

“Clown Therapy,” written by Nina Mansfield of Greenwich, Connecticut, and directed by Cassey Martin, starts funny and ends funnier still. Maggie and Frank, married, are in session with a marriage counselor. They’re careful to point out that their last name isn’t Bozo, but something like Boh-show. David Burkhardt, playing Frank, arrives for the session in full clown regalia, belying the fact that, according to sultry Maggie’s weepy complaint, he’s simply not at all the clown she married. Meanwhile, Christina Trompower, playing the therapist, treats this farcical romp with clinical but sincere objectivity. Stacey Essex is hilarious as the passionately ditzy Maggie who’s mortified to find that Frank’s red nose is fake, and Burkhardt is equally memorable – a wounded, defensive Bozo - in his exasperated wishes for her to know the real him.

Jeremy Lewis directed the evening’s longest (35 minutes) and surely most riveting entry – “Museum Piece,” written by William Fowkes from New York City. The three-man-monologue is a gem of clever drama interwoven with biting comedy. Each delivers his take on visiting the Museum of Modern Art with increasing intensity until they literally and heatedly cross words and paths while gazing at a confounding contemporary installation. Zach Blake is utterly convincing as a pathologically panicky, agoraphobic student type, fretting over his every thought and move. So too, the masterful Nate Ross is gripping in his character that seethes with confrontational, brooding indignation, both righteous and misplaced. And Michael Burkhardt (he’s real- life father to previously mentioned cast members David, and husband to Tawny) is unforgettably if not oddly endearing in his frenetic portrait of insecure, effete intellectualism.

Cassey Martin directed the comically twisted “Smoke Screen” by Jamaica, New York playwright Esta Fischer. Stacey Essex returns as Laura, girlfriend to Jeff, played by Paul Weston. In celebrating their six-month anniversary of quitting smoking together, they quickly come to sparring through a tight and laugh-filled scenario of second guessing each other’s motives. Even more absurd, though with its own share of authentic social commentary, is “Breeders,” written by Kevin Aremento from Long Island, New York, and directed by Moriah Ophardt. She also deliciously/viciously nails her role as a puppy on a smoke break in front of a pet store, while confronting Flora, an anti-puppy- mill activist, played with high-energy sincerity by Krystian Bender.

In the final work, Jeremy Lewis directed, and plays the role of Greg, along with co-director Cassey Martin in the role of Hailey, in “Three Hour Difference,” by Mike Poblete from New York City. It’s an intriguing, fast-paced look at a long distance relationship. He’s in New York, she in Los Angeles, each speaking to an unseen ‘other’ as they test the waters of separation while questioning their future. Lewis is sharp in his easy delivery of nervousness posing as witty confidence, in subtle counterpoint to Martin’s tender wrestling with her conflicts.

While the 12-minute story leaves the final status of the couple unresolved, it is nonetheless a poignant close to a marvelously satisfying evening of inventive theatre.

Photo, courtesy Alyssa Pearson and Jeremy Lewis: Jeremy Lewis and Cassey Martin in “Three Hour Difference,” one of six short plays in the From Script To You New Works Festival, at the North Canton Playhouse McManaway Studio theater, 525 7th Street NE (Hoover High School), North Canton. THROUGH MAY 14. Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, also 8 p.m Thursday May 12, and 2:30 matinee on Mothers Day, May 8. Seating limited. Tickets (330) 494 – 1613, General Admission $10, students 2 for 1 with valid ID.

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