Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2009
Don’t get me wrong, I like words. I use a lot of them every day. But I am mindful of the truth in the old saying “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” At its best, theatre is a seamless blend of words and images, colors and sounds.
There is another old saying in playwriting circles – “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” (You can see just how ancient that saying is because I don’t think you CAN send a message via Western Union anymore. We should probably update it to “If you want to send a message, use e-mail.”) Of the four new, one-act plays being premiered during Main Street Stage’s First Annual Short Play Festival, three labor under heavy loads of words to deliver over-obvious messages, and one is an enticingly minimalist blend words and images.
The evening opens and closes with works by Paul Dexter – The Importance of Being Doug, directed by Eric K. Auld, and Riches to Rags to Riches, directed by Sean McHugh – both of which are verbose to the point of overwhelming whatever sociopolitical statement Dexter was attempting to make.
In The Importance of Being Doug a single, middle-aged, middle-class woman (Jackie DeGiorgis) with delusions of social superiority takes in a homeless man (Mitch Bucciarelli) who happens to have the same name – you guessed it, Doug – as her recently deceased dog and attempts to mold him into a replacement. To be sure you REALLY get the point, Dexter has named this character Charity Masters. Oy!
It is a true and sorry fact that people treat their pets better than they treat their fellow humans, but a good life for a dog is a rotten life for a man, and we are told so little about the human Doug that we don’t understand why he would put up with this nonsense. Or why Ms. Charity Masters would think that it would be easier, cheaper, or more enjoyable to keep another human being instead of simply going to the shelter and finding a new mutt. The reason people treat their pets better than they treat other people is that their relationship with animals IS so much cheaper, easier and enjoyable. Pets are simple. People are hard.
Auld has directed DeGiorgis and Buccarelli to play the work as broad farce, which it isn’t. All in all, this is the weakest play in the quartet, and it was wise to place it first where the bad taste it leaves will be quickly forgotten as the other, better plays eclipse it.
In Brian Petti’s Absolution, directed by Sarah Rae Brown, we find a woman, designated only as Central (Julia Susan Cellana) in the program, in a tidy and clinical room where she waits to grant absolution to whoever enters. The Citizen (Rebecca Fleckner) we observe her serving is a young woman deeply troubled by an unnamed wrong she has committed. I don’t believe Petti intended both characters to be female, and I don’t think they have to be. They just are, here.
Whether this is the playwright’s intent or the director’s vision, the role of Central is played by a child. Cellana is an eight-year-old girl. This casting choice convinced me that what Petti was examining was the human psyche, which is generally run by a three-year-old but no three-year-old could have learned those lines. Seeing a child in charge, as s/he is of every soul, struck a chord with me, but I believe Petti intended the play to be a commentary on modern-day industrial bureaucracy – a sort of surreal Dilbert strip, if you will. The fact that those inner three-year-olds also run every government in the world was probably what Petti was getting at.
But casting a child is also problematic. I want to make it clear that Cellana is the best of all possible eight-year-old girls for this part and that she gives it everything she’s got, but she’s only got eight years worth of life experience to draw on. She sounds like an eight-year-old girl, and, although Brown has done a masterful job coaching her to slow down and speak up, her voice remains breathy and squeaky, and she rushes her lines. Since Petti has written Cellana’s lines in an incredibly intricate bureaucra-speak, it is important that we hear them and hear them clearly. Now I was sitting way back in the theatre, and I do have a hearing loss, and I could understand most of what Cellana said, which is wonderful, but it took more work than it would have if the role was played by an older performer.
That being said, Cellana holds her own admirably against Fleckner’s anguished Citizen, who Brown has directed to hold no punches. Fleckner acts as if Cellana is an adult authority figure, which works wonderfully well. Of the three word-heavy plays, Absoultion was the most intriguing and well-played. I would like to read it, or see it again with an older actor as Central, to get a handle on exactly what Petti was trying to say.
I want to stop here and comment on the simple, effective and innovative sets the Main Street Stage team has created for these shows, and the speed and professionalism with which they are changed. Each show has a distinct look and you don’t feel as if you have sat there watching stagehands clump around in the twilight for hours to get there. Kudos to Stage Manager Kelli Newby, and to Coday Ward and the actors who act as the running crew.
After a brief intermission, Remains, written by Sharon Wyrrick and directed by Jeremy Kerr, is presented. Remains is a play in three parts, of which only one is presented here, about the relationship between a woman and her dog. I know, I know, you’re going to say that The Importance of Being Doug just covered that territory, but this is different. Very different.
Wyrrick uses words sparingly and Kerr has created an environment in which space and distance play as large a role in defining social status as clothing and body language. The Woman (Samantha Cullen) is very much in charge. At first you think perhaps just of the world contained in the one room where she reads, sips coffee, and lords it over the Waiter (Shawn Crahan) and her dog, who is invisible to the audience. But then you realize that the power she wields is greater than that. She controls at least two nasty-looking uniformed Officers (Todd Hamilton and Lisa Depasquale) who in turn seem to have complete autonomy to do whatever they want to two Passersby (Julia Les and Andrew Davis). There is the dark feeling that she controls a brutal, totalitarian state, whether or not it extends beyond the realm of our vision.
The Woman and the Waiter occupy the foreground, separated by black walls into which door and window openings have been cut. We see the Officers and Passersby only behind and through these walls, and, for the most part, they do not speak. They are not silent, they make a lot of noise, but they speak few words. They don’t need to. We understand.
Remains was the only play in this quartet that left me wanting more. I would love to see the other two parts of it – all three parts presented together. Wyrrick, who has had a long career in the visual and performing arts, knows how to use her gifts to make her point in creative and arresting ways.
The final play is Dexter's Riches to Rags to Riches about an upper-class New York City couple – Harry (Frank La Frazia) and Mona (Melissa Quirk) – who have bought an apartment in Washington Heights – on 164th Street to be exact – and are not entirely comfortable in their new surroundings. The action of the play takes place as the change from the grubby clothing they wear to blend in and stay safe on the streets of their new neighborhood, into formal wear and accoutrement suitable for an evening at the Metropolitan Opera in their old neighborhood in the West 60’s.
Their chatter is blatantly racist, classist, and shamelessly materialistic. She outright loathes their new neighborhood while he adores their new apartment, which is much larger and cheaper than anything they could afford in midtown. Notice I said cheapER. At $1.4 million it ain’t cheap, and his contention is that it won’t take long before the poor, lower class, and non-white residents are forced out and the area is gentrified. He’s right and she’s a whiny bitch. Neither of them are people you really want to spend quality time with, and, again, Dexter makes his point early, frequently, and loudly. At various times my attention would wander and then I would focus in again and think: “Are they still at it?”
Luckily La Frazia and Quirk are skilled and likable performers. Together with McHugh and Andrew Bigelow on the light board they have created an hilarious approximation of a New York City cab ride – they only place in the world where you pay good money to risk your life. La Frazia’s use of the hang strap is brilliantly realistic, and both performers manage to give the impression they are changing clothes in a tightly enclosed space when they are actually just sitting on a bench in the middle of an empty stage.
This show is more fun to watch than it is to listen to.
It is not unusual for plays in a festival like this to be uneven, and this is the first time Main Street Stage has done this trick of soliciting and selecting short plays. They received an impressive number of entries from all over the country, and have selected an interesting quartet. They have called this event their First Annual Short Play Festival in the fervent hope that there will be a second, and a third…and that is a good idea. We get to see lots of new work in the Berkshires, but most of it is by playwrights who are already established enough to catch the eye of a Tina Packer, Nicholas Martin, Kate Maguire, or Julianne Boyd. Main Street Stage is a community theatre aiming to give new playwrights, directors, and actors a chance to work together and learn the ropes.
There are only three more performances scheduled, and seeing four shows for $10 is an unbeatable bargain. I highly recommend taking the trip to North Adams and judging these new works for yourself.
The First Annual Short Play Festival at Main Street Stage. 57 Main Street in North Adams, MA, will be presented Friday, January 23rd, Saturday, January 24th, Friday, January 30th, and Saturday, January 31st at 8PM. The evening runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages eight and up. Tickets are $10 each and can be reserved online at www.mainstreetstage.org or by calling (413) 663-3240.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009