Tuesday, June 03, 2008

EST Marathon

More a relay race between playwrights than a marathon, Ensemble Studio Theater's thirtieth year of Marathon one-act plays is still the Olympic standard for festivals of this nature. The range of talent isn't just diverse--it's downright bizarre, finding Pulitzer Prize-winning David Auburn on the same playbill as Michael John Garces, an AD in LA, or to see the off-beat work of Taylor Mac and Anne Washburn on the same night as mass-produced Neil LaBute. But it's bizarre only in the sense of magical abundance; in truth, there's an abundance of talent on display at this bazaar (to be fair, also some coal and rough-cut diamond). Thanks to a mercifully smooth technical production by the EST staff, Maiko Chii's adaptable sets, and Evan Purcell's fluid lighting, Marathon 30 provides audiences with the opportunity to see the highs and lows of the one-act form.

Series A, which closed on May 31, opened not on a high or a low note, but on a note all the same, that of Willie Reale's A Little Soul Searching, a short musical ditty that falls into a trap of condensation. It's somewhat of a frustrating piece, for it operates simply to poke fun at Earth: two A-class brother-and-sister souls, on the verge of reincarnation, think they deserve better--like planet Felicity, where paper towels actually absorb . . . and people don't try to kill one another. The resolution can't help being pedantic, for the show is stifled by its length. Not so, on the other hand, for David Auburn's An Upset, a play that not only comes full circle, but communicates a full story in the process, as the young, easygoing, unranked tennis upstart (Matt Lauria) makes his name beating the old cocky pro (Darren Goldstein) . . . only to find himself in those same shoes just a few years later.

Michael John Garces's Tostitos is also worth noting: it's improved since The Shalimar's You People, with the small space helping to condense the very real, very frightening anger of Red (Andres Munar). But that anger still isn't recognizable; it's pure (Karen Eilbacher) and rediscovered innocence (Jenny Gomez) that gives us something to hold on to. As for Amy Herzog's Christmas Present and Quincy Long's Wedding Pictures: as quirky comic experimentations, they're well-suited for the one-act form (the latter's mime-to-music brings lighter times to mind) but a gimmick's a gimmick, even if that gimmick cracks jokes at STDs.

Series B, which runs until June 20th, has the same peaks and valleys, but a more natural approach that speaks to the times and tones of the playwrights. Unfortunately, Anne Washburn's October/November lacks the buoyancy of her strange comedies, settling too much into a bland and strangely passionless "love" story between a boy (Gio Perez), a girl (Amelia McClain), and a the idea of the freedom of a guitar. The same goes for Lloyd Suh's Happy Birthday William Abernathy, but at least the dryness of its dialogue is balanced by the originality of the concept, in which a racist great-great-grandfather (Joe Ponazecki) has to come to terms with his great-grandson (Peter Kim): "I don't know how my family become so Oriental," he says one minute, "You should've stayed in China where you belonged," the next. Of course, he does so entirely without pants on, which too easily allows us to retreat from the underlying conceit.

Raising the stakes a little higher, but not taking things far enough, is David Zellnick's Ideogram, which connects an interesting concept to an emotional core. The joking tone allows for a clever narrative: Caucasian Jasper (Bryan Fenkart) writes fake Chinese "chicken-scratch" on his Asian friend Drew's (Pun Bandhu) birthday card only to find that he's actually writing beautiful plays. But beneath the in-jokes (Jasper instructs Siho Ellsmore, the actress playing his Chinese translator, to play the stereotype as "Central Casting old"), there's also truth--for Jasper's "gift" turns Drew into a jealous and perhaps even self-hating man. The only problem is that it ends so soon that Zellnick's forced to wrap things up with a tidy koan-like conclusion.

In the same boat is Neil LaBute, whose The Great War will either be the best thing you see in the festival, or one of the worst. For me, it's the worst: it says a lot, very rapidly, but in such shallow dimensions that it need not have been written at all. The other playwrights seem to be striving at something--but LaBute settles for more of the same, and not top-shelf more of the same. The lines are sharp as ever, as Woman (an impressive Laila Robins) tells Man (a somewhat believable Grant Shaud) that she doesn't want the kids: "They're nothing to write home about, even if you're halfway through an e-mail." But what you see is what you get: if it's true that "the truth always burns like a motherfucker" then it's no surprise that both characters in this play turn out to be so cold. Neither one wants the kids: what else is new?

The highlight of the evening, and of the series so far, is Taylor Mac's Okay, which uses the basic elements of farce to explode our perceptions of shallow people. Senior prom, girl's bathroom, and the prom queen's in the center stall, trying desperately not to give birth (and you thought having your period at prom was tough?). As her tragedy plays out (and Susannah Flood should get a medal for remaining so serious), her friends file in--Jordan (Kether Donohue), who yaks on and on about everything (and yet nothing) under the sun, followed by Trish and her silent cohort Trinity (Olivia Mandell and Jessica Jade Andres), who go from snorting coke and spraying their hair to talking about Iraq and the big issues they're most certainly not OK with.

Stephanie hides from her peers by crouching, underwear dangling, on the toilet seat, Trish and Trinity soon follow suit to avoid Josh (Bobby Moreno), who drunkenly proclaims his love before passing out, and confident Mike and nervous Tommy (Johnny Pruitt and Danny Fernandez) who are just looking for a quiet place to have sex (we can see all the actors in the stalls, but these two can't). Taylor Mac's dialogue is sinfully easy, and his monologues are absurdly touching (particularly Mike's rant about the 400-pounder he once "fucked"): his text literally slides across the floor until it's close enough to smack you in the face. All the ditsy comedy disguises the disgusting truths, not just the ones in the center stall, but about what we actually make of the word (or feeling) "okay." Juggling that many balls, especially in a one act, is an impressive feat, not just for the playwright or director (Jose Zayas), but for the cast, too, and that's the sort of envelop-pushing that one-acts should aim for.

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