Monday, December 10, 2007

PLAY: "Vital Signs: New Works Festival Series 2"

Are there theatergoers out there who don't think that the development of new plays and voices is vital? If there are, they should get down to Vital Signs, a three-week series of new works, and one of the best opportunities to see the sort of things that concern contemporary playwrights. Though I can't yet say what next week will be like (though Sheila Callaghan and Sharyn Rothstein are both names the savvy theatergoer should know), my experiences with Week 2 lead me to believe you'll be in for a treat, as there was everything from a one-act musical about moving one with one's life ("Evict This") to a delicate parallel about accidental racism ("Lost in the Supermarket") and a heartbreaking love story ("Meeting"). Ironically, the only thing these plays had in common, despite strong performances and steady direction, were their unpredictable choices, which speaks to a need to communicate old ideas in a new way.

In Sonya Sobieski's Evict This, we're introduced to Lila (Jacyln Huberman), one of those people "who's got their shit together," she sings, seemingly happy with her affordable apartment, perfect hair, and other endowments. But it's not a perfect world: she's haunted by the ghosts of former tenants, two bickering sisters (Meg MacCary and Sheri Sanders) who like to point out that ever since they died seven years ago, they "haven't been the same since." Sobieski's script spends a little too much time misleading us with comic antics between Lila and her latest one-night stand, Guy, and a bored priest (both played by Mark Shock), but ends on a strong note: even after Lila's driven out the real ghosts, she's still emotionally fettered by the ones she conjures up on her own, like lethargy, and stuck in a worse limbo than her ghostly roommates.

Cahterine Allen's Class Behaviors also uses misdirection, this time by veiling its motives under an extremely passive-aggressive confrontation between the highly principled new principal, Rebecca (Vanessa Shealy) and a long-time benefactor of the school, the grand grandmother, Johanna Twilling (Ruthanne Gereghty). Based on Gwenyth Reitz's no-frills direction, we're meant to see Mrs. Twilling as the villain, a woman using her influence to slowly censor the school library, but it isn't long before the tables have changed, and the more liberal Rebecca is using her power to close off discussion with the censorship of Johanna. The play is little more than a parallel between democratic and republican zeal, but at least it's dramatically so.

The most experimental of the pieces is Steve Yockey's Kiss and Tell, which uses a frozen-time narrative to allow characters to confide momentarily in us (as all other action stops) when they're at their most vulnerable. The twist isn't hard to see, especially given all the jokey foreshadowing, but the innocence of all three characters and the violent undercurrent of homophobia carries the play through the obvious patches. It's met on the other side of the intermission by Laura Eason's formulaic Lost in the Supermarket, which cuts between the expectations of two different couples who each talk about the aftermath of a casual and easily forgotten (but all too common) incident of accidental racism in the supermarket. Both plays break up the natural rhythm of conversation to make a larger point, and while neither is perfect, their messages resonate with the audience.

But for all the experiments, sometimes simplest is best: Jason Salmon's excellent Meeting takes the whole "two strangers meet at a bar" device and turns it on its head, summing up years of relationships in one apparently hypothetical conversation. Marc (Joshua Burrow) is the successful guy who's still a kid on the inside, and Stacy (Desiree Matthews) is the prim and perfect (yet fragile) object of his desire, and as they banter through the "rules" of pickup lines, they both explore where this relationship might lead. Salmon's romantic idealism elicited many wistful sighs from the audience, which is why his misdirection was the most effective of the evening: we so want this relationship, emblematic of American values, to succeed, but only find ourselves thinking pessimistically and, ultimately, destroying ourselves in fear of the future. Jack Reiling's direction manages to keep some of the more scripted lines seem natural, and the actors both do an excellent job of connecting to one another, which in turn provokes a real engagement from the audience, and a mutual heartbreak as the show reaches its surprising end.

And that, above all, is the strength of new theater -- not just its power to provoke, but to surprise. We, who think we've seen it all, need more than ever to be reminded that there are an infinite number of ways to see a story, and even more ways to interpret one.

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