Maybe I just have brain-freeze lately, but I could swear that as the days start to get longer again, so do the ten-minute plays. Is it a trick of the light? A side-effect of the winter Solstice? Whatever the cause, the Winter Carnival of New Works – presented by Madcap Players now for the eighth year running – joyously defies basic arithmetic by presenting nine ten-minute plays over the course of an evening that runs two hours and twenty minutes.
More isn’t always better, but if interesting work is getting done, why complain? As long as you don’t have anything scheduled for 9:30, it’s worth staying through both acts, since the festival manages to meet its quota of good staging ideas, moments of quick comic timing, and flashes of character development.
The festival boasts fewer home runs than last year, but when the producing company’s overt purpose is to foster thematic diversity and eclecticism in their new works, it’s typical to see a few plays that don’t completely find their feet, that stumble over some mis-casting, or that simply float away without clear direction holding them to the ground. Once again this year, it balances out by the end.
It’s not all a madcap world. In the opener, What Ever I Want by Mark Harvey Levine, two sisters (Amy Kellett and Allison Corke) lounge on a big bed and plan out a funeral. For whom the funeral’s being held is unclear for a few minutes, although judging by the chipper way the two young women attempt to swallow their sorrow, the answer can’t be good. It’s all laid out by the time one of them steps offstage into angelic light, although the pillowy affection running throughout the play sops up most of the sadness before such engagement is required of the audience.
Other plays range from surreal and atmospheric to pointedly drastic. In Secrets, by Artistic Director Christopher Snipe, five actors break down a set of speeches into bare sentences, which they murmur, shout, interject, and overlap. The idea seems to be an improvised deconstruction of the script into emotional puzzle pieces. In the end, it’s mostly just puzzling, although the next performance is bound to yield something completely new and, perhaps, more stirring.
In Escape to Wonderland, on the other hand, playwright Patrick Gabridge makes it easier for us to engage: give one character a handgun, a criminal history, and a quickly closing window of time in which to get out of town. Throw her into an outbound subway car with an old friend from eighth grade, and we wonder right away if the odd pairing will spur another act of violence. Actors Niaya L. Little and Keva Colbert give this the old college try, but someone’s got to drive that train a little faster, lest we lose the story’s sense of urgent, high-stakes fear and paranoia.
Criminals aren’t the only ones looking to get saved. In Father John Says a Hail Mary, the solo performer Terry Nicholetti relates a deeply personal history of God, gay thoughts, and growing up. Once you catch onto the fact that Nicholetti is playing a man, this confessional does a neat job of highlighting, with studious focus, all the different forms that passion and faith may take. And Nicholetti’s decision to have her character folding laundry, busying his warm, protective hands with a tedious activity, provides the story some additional visual poetry.
In Angie Farrow’s Falling, God won’t be the one to save Holly (played on Friday night by Amal Saade). Holly, who has problems with her inner ear, suffers from a feeling of perpetually falling, so her salvation must come from science and medicine. Her doctor (Andres Talero) begins falling for her (get it?) as he tries to find a cure, but she pushes back his advances because she’s fallen too many times (again, get it?) for broken promises. An additional three chorus members, clad in black, move around Holly in creative tableaux of balance and counterbalance, doing a neat job of keeping her mid-fall. If only the script could drop its pretensions with language and catch up with the flurry of choreography!
The best bits of the evening find a way to meld irreverence and imagination with smart blocking and strong stage images. Casting actors who clearly get a kick out of working with each other doesn’t hurt either. In Quantum Entanglement by Robin Pond, Sara Barker and Aidan Hughes grasp both the silliness and seriousness in a relationship between time-traveling husband and wife who, looking for something more incontrovertible than a break-up, repeatedly visit the past in an attempt to never have met.
Shawn Northrip’s Paul Bunyan vs the Tree Conservation Coalition is a campy musical homage to… lord knows what, but it’s funny stuff, featuring Sun King Davis as Bunyan and Ryan Mitchell as a bearded, singing narrator with a harmonica, who stamps out the beats so aggressively you wonder how he doesn’t go through the floor.
In Four Dry Tongues, playwright Alex Dremann teases the idea that some people are only attracted to people who would never share the feeling, and the farcical apartment party that ensues pits four libidinous friends against each other.
And The Narcoleptic Pillow Fight, also by Alex Dremann, is exactly what it sounds like, only better.
Quite the theatrical buffet, as can only be expected. Not all of the ideas work, but they’re good ideas, many of them, and the consistently fun-minded Madcap has done a thoughtful job of helping to plant the seeds for new writers and new plays. The days get long, the days get short, and, to our benefit, the Carnival continues.
8th Annual Winter Carnival of New Works
Directed by Jeanette Buck, Dave Crowley, Tiffany Ford, Andreu Honeycutt, Christine Lange, Paul-Douglas Michnewicz, and Patrick Torres
Produced by Madcap Players
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 2 hrs. 20 min.