Let’s face it: the principal reason you (or anyone) goes to an evening of ten-minute plays is to sample the future. Writing a compelling ten-minute play is an important step in a playwright’s development, in that it forces her to find the core of a story’s dramatic moment, and to bring it to us in a way which moves us without an elaborate setup mechanism. As for us, we watch in the hope of discovering an incipient Karen Zacarías or Allison Currin or Ernie Joslewitz or…or Renee Calarco, who is actually still writing 10 minute plays.
Here’s the good news from last night’s premiere of the Source Festival’s In the Midst collection (I’ll get to in the midst of what later): I think we found one.
Molly Hagan’s Pioneers epitomizes the best of the form: a distillation of pure emotion with no more information put out than is necessary to make us feel what we need to feel. A man and a woman are in a hospital waiting room. Something very bad is happening. We don’t know what it is, and we don’t know how it has affected them, because it is so horrible that they will talk about anything else instead – television, unidentified sounds in the room, what it would have been like to live a hundred and fifty years ago, and to ride in a cart or a hay-wagon.
Their inability to tell the story becomes the story; and the story they aren’t telling breaks our hearts. Stellar performances by Kathleen Cole Burke and Logan Sutherland helps make that happen, as does Joel David Santner’s crisp direction. Burke and Sutherland never ask for our sympathy, and so they get it, just like in real life.
We’ve already found Calarco, whose The Religion Thing was a Helen Hayes Award nominee for best new play this year, but you’ll be pleased to know that she’s at it again here. Her First Stop: Niagara Falls is a pleasantly dystrophic visit to the generically miserable conference room of a generically miserable office, where a generically miserable birthday party is going on. It’s for Amy (Sarah Ferris), an enormously pregnant woman who is celebrating her thirty-second birthday. You will know these people in your bones: the blissfully clueless social organizer (Stephanie LaVardera), the office malcontent (Alex Badalov), backstabbing Krissy (Anna Lathrop), who lusts to take over Sarah’s job while she’s on maternity leave, and the overmatched middle manager (Alex Perez), whose principal conception of his job is to identify politically incorrect statements by his staff which will require sensitivity training. (Emily Kester gives the stage directions).
Notwithstanding their familiarity, Calarco’s dialogue, and the uniformly sharp and in-the-moment performances, makes them fresh and funny. Amy’s dilemma – she needs her job, and would rather be anywhere else – neatly encapsulates life in the American workplace, circa 2013.
The best of the rest is probably Krista Knight’s Frosty: A Chilly Tragedy with Sexy Bits, in which Madeline (Lynette Rathnam) falls in love with a snowman (Dexter Hamlett). It is not a relationship with long-term prospects. This is not an entirely original idea (you may recall Kate Bush’s lovely “Misty” from her “50 Words for Snow” CD) but Knight creates in Madeline a distinctively quirky self-regarding princess who speaks in the high language, and Rathnam delivers. Director Kelsey Mesa mounts this piece at a furious, snowball-melting pace, to its advantage.
The other three pieces aren’t quite ready for prime time. Pas de Deux for a Microwave Night is Stephen Lewis’ story about a man (Perez) and a woman (Dana Maas), alone with their take-out, who decide to put themselves in the hands of an online dating service.
Tell me if this seems familiar to you: (1) people lie on their online dating profiles, (2) you meet a lot of weird people dating online, and (3) it all works out happily in the end. If so, don’t look to Pas de Deux for insights. Still, Melissa-Leigh Bustamante’s choreography in this nearly wordless Santner-directed piece is about as good as you could expect in Source’s limited space; and Bustamante and Ryan Tumulty are amusing as our protagonists’ computer-generated doppelgangers. Grant Cloyd, Sutherland, and Ariana Almajan play their off-the-wall suitors; Almajan appears to be playing the same character over and over again with slightly different costumes, but the other two provoke some chuckles.
The problem with Eric Appleton’s The Return of the Living is encapsulated in the opening moment, which shows an attractive young woman (Anna Jackson) wearing a Jason mask and holding a hatchet. The premise shocks and amuses, but it cannot be sustained. In this case, the premise is that the accursed Mummy is loose in the house, terrifying the help and requiring the young woman or her cowardly, dyspeptic brother (Cloyd) to give chase while the other sibling remains to hash out daddy issues with their Egyptologist father (Jim Osteen). Just as the (soon-abandoned) mask makes no sense – was she afraid that the Mummy would identify her? Or that she’d get dust all over her face when she hacked through the miscreant? – the play’s premise is hard to keep up; as we listen to the (very familiar) dialogue between father and child, it is impossible not to wonder what’s going on with the somewhat more dynamic story offstage. Between Mummy and Daddy, I would much rather have watched Mummy. We are not helped by the fact that the actors seemed to have line problems on the night I attended. Santner directs.
If The Return of the Living is a little overstuffed with story, Jonathan Cook’s Reflections is a little undernourished, and in addition bathed in implausibility. Anna (Rathnam) and Daniel’s (Joshua Dick) five-year-old child has gone missing, and they are talking to a grief counselor (Hamlett). They have an extraordinarily unlikely explanation for the little girl’s disappearance; if you are a lawyer (and I assume you are, since everyone in Washington is a lawyer) you will have to fight an impulse to rush to the stage and clamp your hands over their mouths.
But even assuming that their explanation (and I will not give it here) is true, what are we to do with it? It does not tell us anything about ourselves, or the human spirit, or anything.
In the Midst
Closes June 30, 2013
1835 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
The Source Festival is bumping up the educational voltage of the ten-minute play experience by appointing a top-rank Washington-area director as mentor for the men and women directing the ten-minute plays in this and the other ten-minute collections, On the Cusp and Afterward. Serving as directing mentor for In the Midst is Jeremy Skidmore, the former Theater Alliance Artistic Director who memorably directed (among many others) Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (Round House) and Angels in America, Part I (Forum). Skidmore personally directs Next Stop: Niagara Falls as well as mentoring the other directors.
In the midst of what, you say? Jenny McConnell Frederick, Producer and Director of Performing Arts for the Source Festival’s sponsor, Cultural DC, says that the plays in this collection are inspired by Lake Untersee, the Source Festival full-length play which, she says, “follows a young man in the midst of discovering exactly who he is.” While this collection of short plays is imperfect, they do make me want to see Lake Untersee, which is why I am recommending In the Midst to you. (For an interview with Lake Untersee playwright Joe Waechter, go here.)
In the Midst: The Return of the Living by Eric Appleton, directed by Santner and featuring Grant Cloyd, Anna Jackson and Jim Osteen; Reflections by Jonathan Cook, directed by Kelly Mesa and featuring Lynette Rathnam, Joshua Dick and Dexter Hamlett; Frosty: A Chilly Tragedy with Sexy Bits, by Krista Knight with music by Barry Brinegar, directed by Mesa, and featuring Rathnam and Hamlett; Pioneers by Molly Hagan, directed by Santner and featuring Kathleen Cole Burke and Logan Sutherland; First Stop: Niagara Falls, by Renee Calarco, directed by Jeremy Skidmore, featuring Sarah Ferris, Anna Lathrop, Emily Kester, Alex Perez, Alex Badalov and Stephanie LaVardera; and Pas de Deux for a Microwave Night, by Stephen Lewis, directed by Santner and choreographed by Melissa-Leigh Bustamante, with Dana Maas, Perez, Bustamante, Ryan Tumulty, Ariana Almajan, Cloyd and Sutherland.
Stage manager: Patrick Magill . Assistant Stage Manager: Lena Foreman and Andrea Fanta, Lighting Designer: Sean Forsythe . Sound Designer: Elisheba Ittoop . Custome Design: Lauren Cucarola . Props and Costumes: Joni Martin . Produced by CulturalDC’s Source Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.