Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Estrogenius Festival: Series A

From a marketing standpoint, the Estrogenius Festival is brilliant. But when it comes to honesty and entertainment, the first week's five one-act offerings fall short of Mensa's theatrical standards (except for Ashleigh Murray's stirring performance in Cheryl Davis's "Child of the Movement"). The festival is still a success: the playwrights show remarkable range and, even in the rockiest moments, take on an energetic, unfaltering pride in their voices. If they're tripping on anything, it's not having enough to talk about.

Take, for instance, Bekah Brunstetter's "Dead Soap," which follows the much-trodden path of satirizing the soap genre. Hutch and Mackenzie (Jason Griffith and Jennifer Kailey Nelson) take center stage, emoting and gesticulating like there's no tomorrow. As the director calls ten, turning off the fan and allowing their hair to fall down, there's the hope that something fresh is coming, but instead, Mackenzie leaves Hutch onstage to talk to his idol, Farley, an embittered old star who isn't afraid to expose the hypocrisy of the small screen. However, Mackenzie's real-life stomach stapling, stipulated in her contract, is unsettlingly laughed off ("I think I'm bleeding internally"), and Hutch's off-camera rejection of Mackenzie ("It's, I mean, in the real world...") feels too compressed to go anywhere new: the play ends before it really begins.

The same goes for Montserrat Mendez's ode to fag hags, "Fag Hag/Fruit Fly: A Goldilocks Story," which, written in a cloying, insiderish fashion, has Janey (Yan Xi) worrying about the play she has to write for Lanie (Susan Slotoroff), a producer of the Estrogenius Festival. This leads her to team up with her muse (Judy W. Chen) to rewrite her bland experience at a Starbucks into a liberating release from her discovery that her boyfriend, Lance (Thomas Rowen) has a boyfriend, Gap (James Edward Becton). Mendez covers for not having much to say by saying it very loudly and then repeating it in an even louder tone, but clever jokes about minorities (particularly Becton's rage at being put in the "blackground") do not make up a play.

Andrea Lepcio's "Tumble Jumble" and Paula Caplan's "What Mommy Told Me" both fly off in the opposite directions. In the first, Lepcio throws four monologues in the air--a girl's growing independence, her mother's perfect rewedding, her father's sorrowful loss of a faithful dog, and a stranger's misfortune--and then links them with a deus ex monologue from a card player who notes that life is all about the luck of the draw. It's an interesting trick, filled with form, but it has no substance: those scattered moments are either stagnant or too neatly piled together. Caplan, on the other hand, takes a true story as her substance, but takes such a heavy-handed form--a mother's pleading address to the audience--that it becomes as hard for us to take her seriously as it is for the too obviously bigoted judge. Both plays have fine physical direction, from Dina Epshteyn and Heather Lanza, but end up trapped in symbolism.

The one play that stands out is Davis's "Child of the Movement," also based on a true story, on that of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl from Montgomery, one who preceded Rosa Parks's involvement with the NAACP, but who was ultimately cast out for being "one of the bad ones" on account of her pregnancy to an older, married man. In this single focused scene, we see Girl (Ashleigh Murray) at her strongest--a true activist--and at her weakest, defending herself against the NAACP chair (Tom Southern) who admires her spirit and despises her situation. It's Murray's fault (if you can call it that) that the rest of the short plays seem so weak. She so embodies the shining truth of her role, speaking out loudly and boldly, that it exposes the shallowness of everything before it.

It's crucial that we have a wider range of voices in the theater, women and minorities alike. But as this first week shows, it's even more important that we have something important to say.

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