Thursday, August 22, 2019

Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival is a collection of tiny plays, approximately ten minutes each.  "Geared toward bringing college playwrights together with industry professionals acting in the Hollywood community" as the program states.  But like writing a very good haiku, the short play format generally proves challenges--pretty good skits or very abbreviated versions of what should be much longer works often prove as good as you get.  This set of performances however rose above those expectations...

Rabbits by Michael Robinson (UC Riverside), directed by Jim Shipley, is a polemic.  I suspected as much from the moment the set revealed a government-office-styled photo of Donald Trump on the wall, so askew as to be deliberate.  Several such in this Festival are, but unusually with a simple directness sans lectures.  In this case an EPA official (Rachel Parker) has an appointment her assistant Amy (Tori Ross) says she cannot avoid, with a Mr. Walker (James Elden) who hopes to persuade her as to the environmental resource of rabbits which should be protected.  Amid echoes of Don Quixote and Mr. Smith going to the nation's capital, the brief story unfolds of an idealist who re-awakens the same in a government official.  Not in terms of statistics or ideology, but a remembrance of the world itself that deserves simple appreciation.  The world and its contents.  Even rabbits.  In the right hands (and these were) a very charming and successful piece.

He/She/They by Brooke Daniels (James Madison University) directed by Michael Massey, consists of a simple/not so simple conversation between two mothers--Celine (Amy Braddock) and Melissa (April Hobson).  Both evidently hold positions in the PTA but the former discovers after a meeting she happened to miss that everyone she knows has turned against her.  The reason?  Her child, born female, has decided they are really male--and has become happier, smarter, in practically every single way more alive.  Fiercely protective of her child, Celine has to face that even her friend thinks she should apologize for allowing other children be exposed to such an idea.  The rage, the hurt, the serious blow to her own sense of hurt stirs something in a viewer, or at least this one.  Yet Melissa never comes across as hateful, no small feat.  Just sincerely blind.  And not quite unconsciously cruel. 

A Flame From Dying Embers by Joel Reedy (Illinois Wesleyan University) directed by Rich Cassone, frankly was my favorite of the plays presented.  It also falls squarely into a criticism mentioned earlier.  I wanted a lot more.  This could easily prove a full length, although to be fair it works as a haiku rather than a sonnet.  Peg (Jayna Sweet) and Sarah (Helen Menefee) live in the center of this fierce, sad tale--a love story between teens from two different worlds to say the least, each with a different kind of toxicity which has poisons that love.  But it doesn't come across as a condemnation of anything specific, at least not in terms of An Answer of some kind.  The wonderful trick of casting the same actor (Mary Carrig) as both their (very, very different) moms helps highlight this.  But this never gets explored very far, which frankly is a weakness in an otherwise remarkably powerful play, one that fascinates both heart and mind. 

Voir Dire by Carissa Atallah (UC Riverside) directed by Mary Carrig, makes for the third and perhaps most simply brilliant polemic.  The title also makes for a vivid, sharp (as in piercing) pun.  Four women, questioned by a government official (Michael Taylor Gray) as part of jury selection asks if they or anyone they know has ever been the victim of sexual assault.  Woman One (Amy Braddock) talks about her husband, and while it would be easy to imagine her as programmed or obviously a victim, her account proves not so simple.  She might be correct.  Or she is taking part in a horrifying desecration.  We don't know.  Woman Two (Chelsea Johnson) is if anything more disturbing, about a friend who was drunk and so was she at a party.  Woman Three (Heidi Kendrick) snorts and says what woman doesn't know another who has been raped.  Her story is a graphically horrible one like the first two, but one about male power and her own sneering cynicism about it.  But Woman Four (Carmen Scott) says almost nothing.  At first.  Instead she listens and freezes up, but inside we can see the volcano brewing as she stares with an spiraling intensity, her body growing more and more rigid (to the point of actually shaking) as she listens to others.  When her words finally spill/spit out, the rage and hurt tell us all we need to know.  Since her words were in Spanish, a language I do not speak, the details were lost on me.  But not the heart of it.  No, that came out crystal clear.  And then of course all four are deemed unfit for jury duty.  Then came the kicker.  Four men (James Elden, Matt Gottlieg, Roy Oraschin, Don Tiffany) come in, asked if they know anyone who has been sexually assaulted?  Three refuse to answer, showing barely any discomfort.  Number Four just says "Not that I know of." 

Take Five by Bryan Harris (Orange Coast College) directed by James Elden, honestly was my least favorite of a well-above-average slot of short plays.  Frankly, I thought it too short.  A slice of life that frankly seemed too thin, but maybe only barely so.  The characters proved vivid, even if I did not quite understand the stakes involved, especially for the lead Michael (Matt Gottlieb) who seems to be a poet wandering around New York.  He meets up with a homeless man named Lester (Roy Oraschin) who frankly seems amazingly chipper, cheerful and wise which can work but I don't have much more I can say about him.  The hooker Candy (Sarah Louise Kane) was a little puzzling, but I got a sense that she was only showing part of herself to others, relaxing as it were with people she liked.  Vinnie (Don Tiffany) on the other hand proved vividly, nastily alive and vital.  He appeared crystal clear in his casual cruelty, his bitterness, his misogyny and his fundamental sadness.  I never liked him, but wow I could not take my eyes off him while he was on stage!  Sarah (Helen Menefee) brought life into what is something of a stereotype--the gorgeous girl who likes the victim of a bully.  But while that has potential, the play doesn't give us enough to say or even hint much about her.  The Bouncer (James Elden) is pretty much a walk on.  I found myself wanting lots of little clues, lots of little hints about these people, or some really startling choices that would put them into sharp relief.  There is nothing wrong with this play, but like a perfectly good sandwich needs some condiments or maybe an interesting choice of bread. 

I walked away quite impressed with all five playwrights and with the casts as well as directors.  Will be on the lookout for them all.

The Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm until August 25, 2019 at the Dorie Theatre in the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood CA 90038.

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