10×10=100 and 100% is the score for the ten new plays that greeted audiences this weekend at Barrington Stage Company (BSC). Not only were there were no disappointments, some were truly stunning.
And imagine my surprise that, in the middle of the winter, there wasn’t a seat to be had yesterday afternoon at the official opening. The 10×10 on North New Play Festival runs at BSC’s company’s Stage 2 until this coming weekend. The last performance is February 26. You can read this review first, but here’s my recommendation: grab your tickets first, they won’t last long. That’s because the 10×10 on North Winter Festival is the best thing to happen in the Berkshires in years.
The ten plays are written by seven women and three men, with a versatile cast of six undertaking some 25 roles between them, and a handful of directors shaped two plays each, for a total of ten great stories.
Short plays, like short films are among the most popular ways for the public to take in the latest trends in theatre, film and the performing arts. Once in a while a short play, one act or less, can express such a powerful idea that it turns into a full length play. Tennessee Wiliams wrote many one act plays, and one of his most famous, Suddenly Last Summer, grew out of his off-Broadway double bill, 1958′s Garden District.
At the performance I saw, the audience reaction to the ten plays chosen for the 10×10 on North Play Festival was exuberant and the positive buzz as they left the theatre proved that artistic director Julianne Boyd has come up with an inspired formula to banish the mid-winter blues.
The quality of each play was very high, and it showed once again that stage magic can happen on a modest budget, even in the dead of winter. On stage with the actors was a portion of the Asher Lev set, which, like a cyclorama, proved to be a fairly unobtrusive presence. A few clever wigs, some makeup, and simple, but well chosen street clothes, completed the necessary illusions. Ultimately it is the immense talent and theatricality of the actors – who only had one week’s rehearsal time! – combined with an economy of good direction and a top notch technical crew, that the whole became greater than the individual plays.
With the theatre filling each night through a combination of good reviews and positive word of mouth, this could become more than just a one time thing. It could be repeated, and at any time of year. Boyd has no shortage of ideas when it comes to keeping us entertained so just imagine this 10×10 template being used for the Christmas season. It might be called 12×12 and cover the many ways people celebrate the holidays. 12 plays. 12 minutes. 12 performances only. That cash cow is waiting to be milked.
Here is a rundown of the ten plays included in the 10×10 on North Festival.
God in the Goat refers to a story about a cashmere scarf that is an important part of this play. That connection arrives out of the blue, totally unexpected, and brings humanity to this big city story.
Assisted by street noises and flashing lights to simulate the paparazzi swarming the scene of a tragedy, we first feel the defensiveness of Lily Balsam as Janie is talked up by Brian, the callous photographer who goes through the motions of trying to get his “money shot” of a dead rock star. Matt Neely goes through the motions of being a bit of an insensitive clod, but soon they find some commonality. The script by Suzanne Bradbeer finds warmth in a very cold place, the streets of a big city. Frank LaFrazia directed, expanding the stage into the audience to good effect.
Another Cup of Coffee is a wonder of a ten minute play by Cait Weisensee, condensing the essence of life – and our mortality – into a few minutes of heartbreaking scenes of a husband coping with a wife whose Alzheimer’s is crossing from difficult to impossible. As Margaret, Peggy Pharr Wilson is both scary and sympathetic. With her partially unbuttoned bathrobe billowing behind her, she enters and exits like a busy bee with a three second memory. A loving and kind Robert Zukerman as the husband Jim simply covers for Margaret so as not to frighten her. As she brings another cup of coffee to him, he hides the previous one she also brought just minutes ago. The docility and kindness he infuses into his role is noble, and understated.
This slice of life drama takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of daughter in law Linda (Emily Taplin Boyd) who really doesn’t want to interact with Margaret, but does and tries to be logical in a illogical situation. The play has the impact of a full length play. Margaret was on the go all the time, a vital and once dynamic person, and yet there was not one superfluous movement under the economical direction of David Sernick.
In Tenderness, director Tom Gladwell created the ultimate picture (above) of two people in love trying to sleep in a bed made for one. Felliniesque in its initial impact, playwright Maureen McGranaghan quickly turns the surreal moment into the usual give and take between a pair of lovers in the middle of a one night stand. As Matt the geek, Ryland Thomas is a fibbing, flubbing fellow whose only desire is to leave without being noticed. Of course Emily Taplin Boyd is having none of his excuses or pretensions, yet is not ready to give up on him entirely. Funny of course, Boyd’s character won’t let the weasel escape with his ego intact. But neither does her own pride remain untouched by the time the blackout comes.
In Lanie’s Lament, Sula Lee is a southern lady who enjoys telling stories, in this case one about the funeral of Uncle Bob. It is spellbinding, and reminds us of just how affecting a simple anecdote can be. Peggy Pharr Wilson gets all down home as the spinner with masterful timing as she relates Jacqueline Goldfinger’s tall tale. Director Mark St. Germain (who is not a bad story teller himself) kept the focus on the words and Wilson soon had the audience in the palm of her hands. The payoff soon had the audience in stitches, but I am not going to spoil it for you by giving it away. You’ll have to hear it for yourself, and half the fun is watching Wilson tell it.
Closing out the first five plays is The Story by Mikhail Horowitz, a strange piece with one foot in the Theatre of the Absurd, the other smack dab in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It revolves around two men, Little John (Matt Neely) and Big John (Robert Zukerman) who are alone in a cave on a dark and stormy night. Or something like that. As with Didi and Gogo they repeat the same tale perhaps a dozen times, adding a little detail to each iteration, but without ever getting to the point. They are passing the time until the lights come on, at which point the play is over. Strange fun indeed, especially in the sparse direction of Mark St. Germain who lets the words and actors shine.
It was a surprise to find the funniest thing about Things I Left on Long Island is a man in drag, and director Julianne Boyd hit the funny bone with Robert Zukerman as Grandma. Here’s an amusing tale of a Brooklyn family stuck out in a deadly boring town on the fork of Long Island. And I have to tell you, I adore Sara Cooper, since her writing brings back my own upbringing by Brooklyn parents on Long Island. (Where did my accent go, they ask!). The play, told from the viewpoint of Marny (Lily Balsen) doesn’t have a chance with her domineering mother Dolores around, another splendid turn by Peggy Pharr Wilson. But with Grandma in the person of Robert Zuckerman, she has met her match. When granny colludes with Stephen (a wonderful Ryland Thomas finally breaking out of being typecast as a geek for another role as the good son and grandson) the audience is in hysterics as the two put the loudmouth mother in her place. As to the playwright daughter, she is the straight man in all this, the foil for the whole family. By the end of Cooper’s play I was convinced that if it ever got to an Act 2 it should be her announcing she is moving out.
When you are asked to Behold the Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured it is up to the coach to make an inspiring speech, but what happens when he isn’t much of a coach, or a public speaker for that matter. It’s just embarrassing. While there were many laughs in the script by Will Eno, they were from the non sequiturs, cliches and inanities that emerged from the mouth of this sad sportsman, ably recreated by Matt Neely and directed by Mark St.Germain. But this is no comedy, it is a tragedy, and we are laughing at the discomfort we feel when our role models are unable to live up to their billing as inspirations.
In its way, it was the most original and thought-provoking of the ten plays, and leaves the audience contemplating the possibility that not being in the public eye may be better than exposing yourself, intellectually, in public.
Lunch with Amanda may not have hit a home run, but neither did it strike out. Not every play can be the best, some are simply better than others. Entertainment comes in many flavors, each style of humor has its adherents, so perhaps this was more me, since the audience seemed to like it quite a bit. It’s a contemporary story of relationships these days, and the inhibitions that corporate life instills in all of us.
Sam (Ryland Thomas) offers some apologies for having hit his associate Amanda (Lily Baldwin) with a soft ball (Amanda notes is not actually “soft” at all) the problem here might have been resolved with a more colorful Sam – Ryland Thomas’s role was more of a cliche than a revelation. In fact the two young actors seemed lost without stronger, older anchors on stage. Sort of like life itself. This is one place that having only a week to work on ten plays inhibited giving it more depth and creating characters to care about.
In Total Expression, Emily Taplin Boyd finally had a chance to really shine as Katerina, a Russian model with few modeling jobs but great survival skills. Playwright Marisa Smith folds a lot of character exposition into a few minutes of what at first appears to be a fluffy comedy, but it has a point. As the model talks with Jane (Peggy Pharr Wilson) she is also planting seeds which take hold in the final few minutes as Jane’s husband Norman (Robert Zuckerman) arrives on the scene, and they talk. Director Tom Gladwell was thinking visually again as the poses struck by Boyd, and then Jane are seared into my memory. There is also a waiter, who without many words to say, still had some of the best body language seen all evening. Congrats to Matt Neely for inhabiting a routine role with verve and depth, and yet never upstaging the principals. One of the top plays of the show.
Of course, Fugu, the last of the ten plays leaves everyone in a good mood since it has an almost predictable ending which generates the biggest guffaws of the evening. Playwright Laura Shaine pairs two competitive couples and a double twist for a hilarious outcome to an evening of one-upmanship. Julianne Boyd’s steady hand on the theatrical tiller keeps this short voyage into exotic cuisine putting along until it hits a snag.
The actors Matt Neely, Lily Balsen, Emily Taplin Boyd, and Ryland Thomas are once again charming, and create a whole new series of roles for themselves as the evening safely reaches port. The satisfying conclusion leaves the audience not only in a good mood, but hungry for more.
The 10×10 on North New Play Festival has lit up the Berkshire winter with brilliant theatrical fireworks. With an all-equity cast, top-notch direction, and fresh writing, these ten hearty theatrical snacks will help tide us over until June. In addition, there is much more going on in this city wide project. 10×10 on North has the involvement not only of artists, but of residents and merchants who have all worked hard to made it a reality. Well done, everyone, very well done!
Barrington Stage Company presents10x10 on North New Play Festival, Directed by Julianne Boyd, David Sernick, Mark St. Germain, Frank La Frazia and Tom Gladwell. Jeff Roudabush – Director of Production and Lights, Andy Reynolds – Sound, Production Stage Manager – Michael Andrew Rodgers, Asociate Producer – Natasha Sinha, Press Rep – Charlie Siedenburg. Casts given with each play synopsis. February 16-26, 2012, about two hours including intermission. Barrington Stage Company Box Office – 413-236-8888.