New plays certainly are the life force of the theater and the playwright occupies a unique position among the industry of writers. For the audience to follow along and become engaged with the story being told on stage, the playwright’s responsibility and integrity must be borne out of passion and enthusiasm if the theatrical narrative is to transcend the superficial function of agenda setting in a community.
The playwright must learn to trust his or her own self. As Anthony Neilson has written, ‘the playwright is the natural descendant of the village storyteller. Why the playwright and not, say, the novelist? By the very fact that the nature of the theatre is ephemeral. When a production of a play is over, it lives on only in the memory of its audience. That’s the absolute beauty of theatre and that’s why it’s only in theatre that we find a form that truly captures the impression of our fragile and transient lives.”
Last night’s first-ever Playwrights’ Lab Recital, a collaboration of Plan-B Theatre and Meat and Potato Theatre, provided strong and consistent evidence that eight local playwrights effectively rise to their duties in responding with integrity and passion about what they experience and what they feel, offering audiences scenes and monologues that emphasize the capacity for Salt Lake City to cultivate a highly vibrant culture of theater.
And, the audience thoroughly embraced the whole enterprise, a fast-moving 80-minute recital of 16 scenes and monologues, all exceptionally well performed by a corps of directors and actors. The opportunity to see untested original work read in script form provided an appealing glimpse into the playwright’s craft. While some of the scenes and monologues were, in effect, miniature plays of their own, others suggested a forthcoming expanded form of a one-act play. Next year, both companies plan lab recitals for playwrights and directors. Collaborators Jerry Rapier and Tobin Atkinson should take last night’s recital as a solid cue to make this a regular event and to make it a ticketed one as well. Atkinson will again lead the playwrights’ lab in the new season.
Especially heartening was the consistently high average of the work presented. And, I found it particularly refreshing to see five women playwrights among the group. The order of the scenes and monologues served well the versatility of the playwrights who managed comedic and dramatic forms with equally heartfelt articulation and sensitivity. For example, Jenifer Nii’s monologue about a tech dude who could not escape the working world jargon of buzz words and catch phrases in communicating on an emotional, personal was smart and credible in every aspect as was her scene of two characters reminiscent of the betrayal and fraud epitomized in the Bernie Madoff scandal.
Debora Threedy, who has co-authored a play with Nii that will be a part of Plan-B’s season next year, also offered a scene and dialogue with cues triggered by media headlines. There was a healthy dose of realism and credibility in a scene of a cub television reporter trying with obvious frustration to nail her first on-air interview with a man who traveled a healthy distance in a balloon chair contraption. The prospect of reopening the wounds of grief — ‘one funeral was enough’ — worked well in a monologue about a woman worried about the coffin of a loved one dislodged and set afloat in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina.
Deborah DeVos’ scene involving an American woman arrested for performing humanitarian work in a Muslim country and an interrogator who has been assigned as her attorney was appropriately rich in complexity and intensity. The counterpoint of the unmoved interrogator against the crumbling facade of the woman who gradually cedes her moral resolve for the sake of her safety was engrossing. There was a naturally effective effortlessness in her monologue featuring a frustrated woman who realizes that she barely has a minute to tell her boyfriend what she thinks about him before his mind once again is completely subsumed by sexual desires and notions.
Matthew Ivan Bennett, Plan-B’s resident playwright, provided a polished, tight pair of comic scenes that layered the casual, breezy elements of pop culture with an organically cultivated sense of brutally sobering awareness. In one scene, the audience laughs frequently at the comical bounty of a woman describing her total obsession with the actor Brendan Fraser but it becomes urgently apparent that laughing at the absurdity clears the way for realizing just how flimsy one’s own perception of order and stability really is. A variation of that theme finds its way as well in the closing scene of the night about a couple of friends in the midst of their ritual celebration of cable television’s ‘Shark Week.’ The comedy of the scene flows so naturally even as the starkness of the end of a friendship emerges in full force.
The theme of overcoming inhibition found versatile expressions in Kyle Nelson’s offerings. The audience took quickly to ‘Eric, Kay, and The Two Lovely Kates,’ a wildly funny, fast-paced scene that sets up a never-ending cycle of the do-over in trying to start off a conversation on the right note. Similarly, the awkward moment at a gravesite where a man tells his dead brother that he loves his wife leaves the monologue appropriately open-ended.
Elaine Jarvik’s elegantly written offerings similarly track the awkwardness of filling a romantic void after 9-11 and dealing with grief in a beautifully titled scene ‘Diner Eulogy.’ In the latter scene, she tempers a gallows sense of humor — including the ironic discovery of the wrong box which should have contained the cremated remains — with a mutual sense of respect for differences in spiritual identity.
Megan Crivello’s mastery of language was versatile as well. in a monologue, ‘Ethan Finds The Perfect Girl,’ she encapsulates perfectly the voice, diction, and syntax of many young people who are content rather to fantasize about their targets of affection than to take the risk of healthy, normal direct contact even amid the fear of rejection. In ‘Vanessa, Nathan and The Literary Review,’ she lays out a sophisticated array of choices in a clever way where the gendered roles of confidence and directness are switched.
Finally, like his colleagues, John Belliston traverses smoothly sharp contrasts in character voices, first with poignant authenticity in the monologue of an old African-American man clearly frustrated by the mindset of a different generation and then in the medieval-inspired scene of a brother who must kill another who has betrayed the respect of the order.
To be commended as well are the directors — Jason Bowcutt, Mark Fossen, and David Spencer — and the actors — Blake Barlow, Daniel Beecher, Daisy Blake, April Fossen, Mike Gardner, and Carl Nelson. Following the performance, there was a highly enlightening post-mortem among the actors, directors, and playwrights. The constructive exchange not only reinforced the impression of the high-quality work put forth by the playwrights but also introduced suggestions — to solve, not fix — that provide the fine brushstrokes to shape these works yet further.
Last night’s recital left no doubt that the state of small original theater houses in Utah — with the likes of Plan-B and Meat and Potato — is good and getting better each season.
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