Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: Six Women New Play Festival at the MAT

Posted By on Wed, Apr 16, 2014 at 11:11 AM

click to enlarge "Feng Shui Fever" - DAVID BALL
  • David Ball
  • "Feng Shui Fever"
“Up, Down, and Sideways” is the thematic banner and basis of selection for the Eighth Annual Six Women Playwriting Festival now onstage at the Millibo Art Theatre. Sounds like a spurious and slapdash way of opening the field to ambitious and accomplished women playwrights, but it works for MAT producers Birgitta De Pree and Jim Jackson marvelously.

Each of the six plays chosen — after intense committee review, staged readings, and evaluation — sends its characters in one of those directions, sometimes mystically, but with practiced and confident artistry nonetheless. They are the handiwork of intelligent and deserving women writers, nationally canvassed and selected. They benefit from competent casting, performances, and direction at the MAT. In fairness, however, three of the six are much harder-hitting and thought-provoking than recognized or presented, and a kind of weightlessness pervades the evening that welcomes the audience, but at the same time distances or ill-prepares them for the more serious and probing playwrights on hand.

Comedies bookend the series, and if technical theater is a measure of appreciation at MAT, the opening and closing pieces receive greater attention than their dramatic intermediaries. Something, however minimally, can and should be done to correct these oversights in lighting and set design for the other works presented. Creative and revealing opportunities are missed and a recital rather than a production atmosphere prevails.

Feng Shui Fever, a 20-minute romp by Denver’s Nicolette Vajtay leads off, a near farcical jolt that would satisfy any aficionado of Christopher Durang’s or Neil Simon’s plays. In it a distraught writer (Elizabeth Kahn) faces down her own anonymity with a frenzied search for “chi” and other New Age solutions to realign herself with the universe and facilitate a career and personal rebirth. Happily, and in ways only found in romantic comedy, it works.

Zanne Hall of Queens, New York ends the festivities with Ethereal Killer. Here a mystery writer forms a literary pact with a homicidal librarian to give her tales authentic first-hand source material. Kyle Urban and Miriam Roth Ballard ably capture the hysteria of the two urbanites looking for anything that works in a land of fame and fortune. They want to kill each other one moment and embrace each other the next. With Hall, director LeAnne Carrouth gives their accidental meeting and discovered mutual interest a strange, psychotic plausibility.

But it’s the plays in between that best show the festival’s strength and determination to “awaken new ideas” in the audience, and nurture women playwrights. An exceptional quality the plays share is how well-written and sympathetically men or male characters are represented. In two of the plays, married or romantically attached couples confess to sincerely “liking” each other. No racial, ethnic, or lesbian/gay themes are explored, attempted, or preached, either. Some kind of leveling is definitely going on here with America’s best women playwrights, though that is not their purpose or point.

Out From Under with Mary by Ohio’s Chris Shaw Swanson is a “sideways” entry, demonstrating that lateral movement can be just as absorbing to witness as upward or downward mobility. Here two women (Sallie Walker and Jessica Weaver) contemplate their lives while waiting in a methadone rehab clinic, though neither are there for treatment. The elder — a snarly, homeless combination of King Lear and Granny Clampitt of The Beverly Hillbillies — reflects on a life spent in selfless devotion to others. Her youthful counterpart looks ahead to a future we sense will run parallel to the outcast’s, however strenuously she avoids it. This feeling of inevitability comes through all the more potently because Swanson keeps it quietly below the surface. For instance, telling thunderstorms rage outside the clinic, which acts as a momentary oasis of care and healing from impending calamity.

click to enlarge "I Know What I Saw" - DAVID BALL
  • David Ball
  • "I Know What I Saw"
A similar kind of bonding and resonance is sought by Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich in A Faint Taste of Cat Food and Sour Milk though strained and less convincing. A young chemotherapy patient named Adam (Indy designer Matt Radcliffe) nears the limit of his endurance but sees his way through with the help of his angelic girlfriend Lisa (Lauren Anne Smith) waiting in the lobby. By telepathy and outspoken longing they share and lessen the nightmarish experience of Adam’s treatment. Yet Blumenthal-Ehrlich of Massachusetts seems indecisive as to Lisa’s mortal or spiritual status and we are left unsure of where they stand when the procedure is over. Radcliffe as Adam proves again that he can handle and spellbind with the most difficult acting assignments.

The third installment packing a punch is D.L. Siegel’s I Know What I Saw. Siegel is another New York City native, and her play illustrates her deep familiarity with that locale. A man takes his own life by hurling himself before a speeding subway train, and his nearby grandson (Omid Dastan Harrison) charges a young bystander (Emily Boresow) with insufficiency in her attempt to save the man’s life. The two never confront each other, what we see are two interwoven and soul-searching confessions instead. This leads to a memorable tracking by Siegel of the causes for the man’s choice of action, which seem, given his circumstances, justifiable. However, Siegel could profit from paring down excessive detail given to the man’s family relationships.

Tracy Hunziker and Lynne Hastings are pleasurable to watch as Alice (of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland) and an interposing real estate agent in Deidre Gilbert’s Mallets Aforethought. In this Colorado Springs writer's play, the two are discussing the Rabbit Hole, which sounds compelling and charming, but unless you are in on the Carroll original, it’s hard to go join them. We're not really sure what the two characters want from each other, but again, a little lighting work, say a follow spot, which is simple, would've helped.

What does Six Women reveal about women playwrights? The event begs the question. That they are underrepresented as De Pree and Jackson contend is undeniable, at least where these artists are concerned. In fact, the plays at MAT are far more satisfying than the politicized frontal attacks of better-known women writers. With slightly better investment in production and design elements, they will get where they need and should go.

Eighth Annual Six Women Playwriting Festival, April 16, 17-19, 24-27; 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Millibo Art Theatre,1626 S. Tejon St. Tickets: $20, $15 on Thursdays; for more, call 465-6321 or visit sixwomenplayfestival.com.

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