Burns and Murray review the 10×10 New Play Festival at Barrington Stage

All photos by Scott Barrow

The Fifth Annual 10×10 Upstreet New Play Festival opens at Barrington Stage Company
Theatre Review by Gail M. Burns and Larry Murray

Larry Murray: As theatre-lovers who live year round in the Berkshires, Gail, winter can be like Lent is for Catholics and others. What we seem to give up from January to April are the live performances that we thrive on the rest of the year. Which is why, for the fifth year in a row, we were delighted to get a generous serving of on-stage belly laughs, drama, pathos and even a bit of bathos at the opening of the Fifth Annual 10×10 Upstreet New Play Festival. The ten mind-tickling moments came from ten new ten-minute plays, all slices of life that shed light on things like beginning a relationship, or ending one.

Gail M. Burns: To paraphrase Forrest Gump, the 10x10s are like a box of chocolates. Each one is a treat and some will be your favorites and some will be mine. And they are brief enough it takes you at least 3-5 minutes to decide this one’s not for you, which means it’s almost over anyway. Once again Barrington Stage has assembled a versatile cast of six, three men – Jake Keefe, Andrew May, and Matt Neely – and three women – Madison Micucci, Kelley Rae O’Donnell, and Peggy Pharr Wilson. Neely and Wilson are popular local actors and 10×10 veterans, while the rest are newcomers, but they work as a seamless ensemble here, as they are mixed and matched in a variety of roles.

Larry: The ten playwrights (3 women, 7 men) covered an amazing variety of topics, while Julianne Boyd and John Miller-Stephany split the role as directors with five plays each. Boyd has been artistic director of the company since its inception, and while Miller-Stephany is new to the company, he has an enviable record of success with The Guthrie in Minneapolis and before that with The Acting Company in New York City.

The most delightful moment of the evening comes at the very beginning as the whole cast welcomes the audience, Hamilton-style, in a delightful bit of hip-hoppery created by Matt Neely.

The biggest surprise for me was The Still Point of the Turning World, a one-woman monologue written by Emily Taplin Boyd and directed by her mother, Julianne Boyd. Set in a library during the Blitz it was mesmerizing in the way it unfolded. Did it touch you as deeply as it did me?

Gail: Absolutely! And Wilson was just perfect in it, aided greatly by Dylan Uremovich’s evocative lighting and Lucas Pawleski’s subtle sound design. Taplin Boyd has crafted a very simple tale encompassing such complex matters as life, death, time, space, and British poetry.

Larry: There is no question that Peggy Pharr Wilson is a real acting treasure, and seeing her in such a panoply of roles each year just deepens my admiration for her seemingly inexhaustible skills as an actress. She makes it look easy and we know that ability to make things look effortless is the greatest skill of all. Also inexhaustible in the title role as the trampoline hopping Dr. Kessler is Kelley Rae O’Donnell. Written by Ana Nogueira, it had a great twist at the end.

Gail: It did. O’Donnell impressed me most out of the four newcomers, and it was a joy to see her paired with Wilson in Kelly Younger’s hilarious Best Lei’d Plans about two new mothers-in-law drinking and gossiping at their children’s wedding. But O’Donnell had chemistry with everyone she was paired with, and played a wide variety of roles very well.

Larry: Playwright Sean Harris Oliver captured the macho male mystique in his snippet of rodeo life called Eight Seconds. Newcomers Jake Keefe and Andrew May had just the right chemistry between the veterinarian father who was constantly encouraging yet protective of his son, a fast learner  who was determined and self-assured. There is an eight second section with the young rider on a bucking bronco that is exquisitely (and safely) choreographed by director Miller-Stephany using just a chair and the actor’s body. That was a real payoff for me, though I did find the ending of Sean Harris Oliver’s script rather abrupt and unfinished. The play might benefit from a bit more refinement.

Gail: Eight Seconds was my least favorite of the ten plays, I felt it was awkwardly constructed and gratuitously gross in its description of the father’s veterinary ministrations to an ailing bull. The two-hander I enjoyed most was May and Neely in Turtles and Bulldogs by Scott C. Sickles, which came early in the line-up.

Larry: That was one of the two plays that nibbled around au courant LGBT interests, but both are more ambivalent than to the point. In Turtles and Bulldogs long-ago schoolmates Neely and May meet quite by accident in a cemetery as one is visiting the grave of his wife, the other that of his cat. Sickles reunites the pair and rekindles the possibility of a high school crush becoming a later-in-life bromance. As the two leave together, we are left to decide how the encounter ends.

Also fascinating, but even more frustratingly ambivalent is The Book of Ruth by the relatively new and hard working LGBT writer Joseph Samuel Wright. Taking us back to the 1920’s Smokey Mountains of his native Tennessee, Grace and Ruth (Micucci and K O’Donnell) are living together, people are talking and their relationship is in question. Problem is we don’t really know or feel how deep it is, there was no feeling of love on stage, just talk about whether to stay, go, marry a man or stay together. Whether the director and/or actors missed the subtext or there was little there to begin with is hard to say. But this slice of life left me cold.

Gail: I loved Thin Air, by Tom Coash, whose full length play Veils BSC presented this past fall. It is another woman’s monologue, featuring Micucci as a recently bereaved tight-rope walker standing on the platform in the minutes before the spotlight hits her and she begins her wire walk. Coash wove a lot of interesting history about high-wire work in with a touching human story. Micucci brought a perfect combination of physical agility and emotional vulnerability to the piece.

Larry: While we may not have discussed all ten plays, they are all well worth a couple of hours to see, and with an intermission, make for a perfect midwinter break. As the cliche goes, there’s something for everyone here. What do you think an appropriate age range is for this compendium, Gail?

Gail: There is a smattering of “adult language” and sexual innuendo, all in good fun and in service of plot and character. But I would keep children under ten at home because of some of the larger issues tackled here – issues of the fragility of life and the strength of the human spirit. It is one thing to witness violence on stage, because you know it is carefully choreographed and no one is really getting hurt, but to hear people talk openly about impending death, either their own or a loved one’s, can be quite frightening indeed to youngsters.

Barrington Stage Company presents its 5th Annual 10X10 Upstreet New Play Festival, featuring plays by Emily Taplin Boyd, Tom Coash, Andrew Dolan, Steven Korbar, Ana Nogueira, Sean Harris Oliver, Ann Marie Shea, Scott C. Sickles, Joseph Samuel Wright, and Kelly Younger, directed by Julianne Boyd and John Miller-Stephany. Cast: Jake Keefe, Andrew May, Madison Micucci, Matt Neely, Kelley Rae O’Donnell, and Peggy Pharr Wilson, at the St. Germain Stage in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield from February 13 11-28, 2016. Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm; Sat/Sun at 3pm. Running time about 2 hours with one intermission. www.barringtonstageco.org 413 236-8888

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