Review: The 10×10 New Play Festival at Barrington Stage Company
by Larry Murray and Gail Burns
Much to the delight of us hardy New Englanders, this is the second year that Barrington Stage Company has co-produced the 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival in Pittsfield, MA. It’s where we get treated to ten new plays, ten minutes each, performed ten times between February 14 and March 3. Ten different playwrights are represented, and their new works are directed by four of the Berkshire’s best directors, and an ensemble of eight actors plays all the roles.
Let’s take the plays one by one, in the order they were performed.
There’s No More Here Here
by Craig Pospisil, directed by Christopher Innvar with Emily Taplin Boyd as Juliette, Peggy Pharr Wilson as Gertrude Stein, Scott Drummond as Jean Luc and Dustin Charles as Lance. At a Parisian café, a writer confronts his girlfriend when an unexpected guest butts into their conversation
Larry Murray: This was a fine opener, a bit of theatre of the absurd to start us off, complete with breaking that fourth wall between actors and audience. It skewered all of our usual cliches about dating, the French, Gertrude Stein and a waiter rising up to claim his own personality. There were both plenty of sight gags and meaningful metaphors making two parts of my brain work at the same time.
Gail Burns: I just felt like I had heard this story before. In fact, as a young writer, I think I wrote it more than once. Three characters in search of an author – except the author’s right there on stage with them. Ho hum…
Larry: What I liked about Christopher Innvar’s direction was the allowance he gave the actors to constantly be “on” and not worry about upstaging each other a bit. This gave the play a comedy overlay in what was otherwise a simple drama.
Gail: A little too simple for me. This being my first exposure to the 10 minute play genre, I feared we were in for an evening of nothing up shallow little literary jokes. Thankfully I was completely wrong and this turned out to be the only exercise in artistic navel gazing. Better off titled There’s No Play Here.
You Haven’t Changed a Bit
by Donna Hoke, directed by Kristen van Ginhoven with Matt Neely as Len and Peggy-Pharr WIlson as Lotte. Len hopes that Lottie will finally show up at their 70th high school reunion.
Larry: This is one of my favorites, a short play that tells a real human story, perfectly written, directed and acted. I wish I could have been a prop in the rehearsal room to see how it all came together. As a writer, Donna Hoke’s dialogue was natural, even if the actors didn’t quite seem to be the full 85+ years of age called for by the story.
Gail: [Here's where I confess that it would be a conflict of interest for me to comment specifically on the performances of Matt Neely, since he worked with my family's summer youth theatre for ten seasons. This hobbles me particularly in writing about this piece.]
It was actually daring to choose a play about such elderly people when a small ensemble cast would rotate through the shows and none of the other nine pieces called for older actors. No attempt was made to artificially age the performers with wigs or make-up, and yet they both conveyed their characters’ ages in innovative ways. Still, it would be fun to see an older couple tackle this little gem. Think we could pursuade Tina Packer and Dennis Krausnick to take it on?
Larry: A real surprise for me was the direction by Kristen van Ginhoven. With the actors pretty much confined to their spaces by their cane and walker, the piece still seemed to have a lot of motion to it, and I don’t know she achieved that. I would have to watch it again, and not be so engrossed in what the actors are saying to each other. The words and the characterizations were just magical.
Gail: van Ginhoven let her actors build their characters and speak the playwright’s words. It was as simple as that.
Christmas Eve, Many Years From Now
by Martha Patterson, directed by Frank La Frazia, with Elizabeth Aspenlieder as June, Emily Taplin Boyd as Margie and Dustin Charles as Richard. Two-and-a-half thousand years after the Apocalypse, three cave people celebrate Christmas Eve.
Larry: Often amusing, this look into the future in which men are the homebodies and women the hunters, just failed to tickle my funny bone. And it was ready to be tickled.
Gail: This was my least favorite. It was dumb and badly written on many levels, not the least of which was the gender role swap. La Frazia didn’t help by encouraging Aspenlieder and Taplin Boyd to practically deride masculine traits instead of encouraging them to find ways to be feminine and aggressive/assertive.
Larry: I think it has a future – with some revisions – as a children’s play in which they can teach a lot about social studies with it.
Gail: I think it belongs in the dustbin. Next!
by James McLindon, Directed by Christopher Innvar with Matt Neely as the Confederate soldier and Scott Drummond as the Yankee one. The soldiers, both wounded, are trapped in no-man’s land in a desperate struggle to survive their circumstances – and each other.
Gail: I loved this one. It covered so much historical, political, and religious territory while presenting intriguing characters and being suspenseful. That’s a lot to do in ten minutes! Kudos to McLindon and to Innvar, who, like van Ginhoven in You Haven’t Changed a Bit, was saddled with characters whose physical movement was limited, and yet created a great sense of action.
Larry: I just didn’t get the point of it.
Gail: It asked a lot of enormous moral/ethical/philosophical questions, but the overarching theme was “Is it ever right to kill? And, if so, when?”
Larry: Perhaps that is a subject that deserves more than ten minutes. Mostly I focused on the difficulty their injuries had on their physical mobility.
by Amelia Roper, Directed by Julianne Boyd with Peggy Pharr Wilson as Annie. Annie, a tenant of Camberwell House, tells a tale of old age, murder and gingernut biscuits.
Gail: This was a thoroughly feminine play – written by a woman about women and directed by a woman. I loved it. A little gem of delightful storytelling, deftly performed by Wilson.
The dollshouse and minature props were perfect for this piece. I assume I credit Scenic and Properties Designer Brian Melcher, but I wonder if Lighting Designer Tracy Lynn Wertheimer gets the creit for lighting the dollshouse?
Larry: This was just a blur of words and hard to see teeny tiny props for me. It might have worked if I had been invited to sit at the table that held the miniature house. I’m 73 and my hearing and eyesight aren’t as acute as they used to be.
Gail: Or possibly it just didn’t speak to you as a man. You mentioned on the way home that here and in The Bounce – both of which were one-woman plays – you had trouble hearing the higher voices. I am just an oddball with a hearing loss in the lower registers, but those who suffer the more common afflication of losing it in the higher ones are well advised to sit closer to the stage.
by Aurin Squire, Directed by Julianne Boyd with Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Stewardess, Dustin Charles as Anthony and Scott Drummond as Michael. Two passengers and a flight attendant give their moment-by-moment accounts of what happens when tomorrow is no longer certain.
Larry: This was a wonderful trip into the complex minds of two airline passengers and their flight attendant. The characters are “thinking aloud” and so we are welcomed into some of their most personal – and meaningful – musings as a plane’s landing gear malfunctions. Perhaps because I have been in this situation, and this brief play really clicked. The reaching out between the three, the hugs, the different way each reacted to their potential demise, it all spoke volumes.
Gail: I loved it too, and I am thankful to say that I have never had a scare in the air.
Larry: I am going to have to see what else Aurin Squire has written. (His blog is fresh and literate, like this item.) Between his words, the brilliant staging and lighting, and the controlled delivery of the actors, this was breathtaking.
Gail: Boyd did a fine job directing three essentially stationary actors, with help from Allison Smartt’s incredibly evocative sound design. Aspenlieder has always excelled at this kind of emotional drama, but Charles and Drummond were excellent as well. It has to be tricky casting a project like this – finding the right actors to fill so many diverse roles.
by John C. Davenport, Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven with Emily Taplin Boyd as Woman, Dustin Charles as Man, Peggy Pharr Wilson as Mom and Matt Neely as Friend. The characters involved in a breakup say what’s on their minds – but not to each other.
Gail: Here Davenport uses the words to describe an emotion in place of the emotion itself. It is as if I wrote “Complimentary critical response” here, instead of describing what I thought of the play. This device is challenging for actors because their delivery and body language have to match the situation, not the words, but van Ginhoven and the cast have done a nice job.
Larry: Once again we hear the characters thoughts as well as their words, and it is of course very revealing. Besides being the most popular device of the ten plays, it is a reflection – of sorts – of the kind of stream-of-consciousness jumble we get on a Facebook home page. I also recognize myself in this piece, the constant buzz of surface and subconscious input we endure day in and day out. How about you?
Gail: Oh yes! I have a friend on Facebook who excels at writing this way and I am always jealous.
Larry: In anything, it proves that many of the things we leave unspoken are best left that way.
by Jacqueline Goldfinger, Directed by Frank La Frazia, with Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Sula Lee. Sula Lee recounts a tragic love story and what’s important in life.
Gail: While Aspenlieder delivered this monologue with verve, I disliked Goldfinger’s misgogynistic tale of a fast-food server who gets herself murdered for refusing a man sex. We need to hear new stories, ones that reinforce women’s rights to be as “bouncy” as they want and not die for it.
Larry: It just didn’t work for me.
by Christopher Innvar, Directed by Christopher Innvar, Shea Mcliquham as Sean, Scott Drummond as Mike, Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Maureen. A father and son venture in search of gas after the devastation of a major hurricane.
Larry: This play has spoken to me more since the performance than while I was watching it. Because it deals with the aftermath of disaster when details arrive piecemeal with some false leads and red herrings, only in retrospect do I get its message.
Gail: I liked the first half better than the second. When you only have ten minutes, you can’t go switching realities too quickly. You barely have time to build plot and character.
Larry: I do think the distinction between what is real and what is not could be made a little clearer, perhaps with a subtle lighting change.
Gail: But also, who learns of a loved one’s death in a vision? If I had that experience it would certainly shake me, but I would not accept it as fact until I had concrete proof or until enough time had elapsed for me to accept the inevitable truth. The surreal second half ruuined what could have been an interesting little play for me.
by Brett Hursey, directed by Julianne Boyd, with Matt Neely as Director, Emily Taplin Boyd as Amanda and Dustin Charles as Xocko. At an audition, a young actress finds herself being outshined by an unexpected character.
Gail: Puppetry! And good puppetry too – I was impressed with Charles’ performance as Xocko, the Superstar Sock Puppet. Taplin Boyd was winsome and she and Neely gave this the old college try but, while it was fun, it ultimately it just missed being a good play.
Larry: We had fun talking about this one on the way back home, and it is as good as the many You Tube audition and theatre satires like Submissions Only so popular these days.
So Gail, what’s the final verdict?
Gail: The one sure thing about a 10 minute play is that, if you don’t like it, you only have 8-9 minutes before it ends! But seriously, regardless of the individual merits of each play, the overall effect of this two hour romp is professional and entertaining. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn about religious differences during the American Civil War, the role of foam in an emergency plane landing, the philosophy of furniture, and the inner life of sock puppets. There’s nothing not to like here.
Barrington Stage Company presents 10×10 Upstreet New Play Festival (individual credits above). Scenic & Properties Designer-Brian Melcher, Lighting Designer-Tracy Lynn Wertheimer, Sound Designer-Allison Smartt, Director of Production-Jeff Roudabush, Production Stage Manager-Olivia O’Brien, Press Representative-Charlie Siedenburg, Associate Producer-Christopher Dononvan. About two hours with one brief intermission. February 14-March 3, 2013. St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA.