Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Marathon 2009: Series A

Photo/Zack Brown

Unlike the short story (as opposed to the novel), there are few advantages to a short one-act play. However, Ensemble Studio Theater has been producing festivals of them for so long--this is the 31st year--that they know what to look for: relevant and timely subjects, or wildly experimental styles. It's unfortunate, then, that so few of the shows in Series A of this year's Marathon fail to go the extra mile. The worst, Christine Farrell's "For the Love of God, St. Teresa," gets winded before it even begins. A nun (Farrell) tries to keep her sluttish pupil (Lucy DeVito) from descending? For the love of god indeed--there isn't a single original thought or believable moment in this entirely telegraphed play.

Thankfully, Farrell's the only one who gets tripped up on Playwrighting 101. The other writers may be weighed down by their heavy-handedness, but at least they move well. Kia Corthon's "Trickle," for instance, is a collection of rotating two-person scenes, in which the poorer character becomes the richer character in the next scene. However, there's no shift in perspective when Christina (Shirine Babb) finds herself firing the caterer (Tatiana Suarez-Pico) at the request of her boss (Geneva Carr). And Angelique (Nikki E. Walker), the nanny at the bottom of the chain, is far too smart for us to sympathize with--especially since there's no one beneath her to mask her own proseltyzing ("Poverty is what trickles down").

The limberer pieces are the ones that don't get hung up on big ideas, but on small moments. Tommy Smith's "PTSD" doesn't deal so much with Riles (Haskell King) coping with his time in Iraq so much as it does with the responses from his widowed father (Jay Patterson), who has taken to sleeping in the living room as he can't afford to fix the heat in the other rooms; his crazy sister (Stephanie Janssen), who glibly remarks that she should be fine now that they've shocked her; and his ex-girlfriend (Julie Fitzpatrick), who invites herself over to announce, taking off her shirt, "I'm not seeing anyone right now." The climax is a quiet breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh off the hot plate, with an extra serving of regret.

Garret M. Brown's "Americana" is also hung up on the small moments, but in this case, as a means of staving off bad news by dwelling in the happier past. The time is 1959, but the characters speak like Our Town's Stage Manager, with full awareness of their future. It's the best time in the life of 13-year-old Gary (Miles Bergner), because his dad (Michael Cullen) has bought him the 26-volume Americana encylopedia, marking one of the rare occasions that he was not totally drunk or suspicious of his son being a little too "artistic." Brown doesn't do much with the mother (Ann Talman) or the salesman (Chris Ceraso), but director Linsay Firman uses them to establish a happier time, before the characters start blurting out apologies for the upcoming years.

Finally, there's the love-it-and-hate-it "Face Cream," by Maggie Bofill. It's a remarkably stupid tale of a woman (Paula Pizzi) who is obsessed with wrinkle prevention, and the attempts of her husband (Bruce MacVittie) to comfort her. Of course, it never takes itself seriously, and that's where it wildly, energetically, entertainingly succeeds: Bofill's got some zingers ("The penis is between my legs, not wedged into the understanding part of my brain!") and a true understanding of woman logic--like when you secretly love the cat-calls from construction workers because it shows that there's something worth demeaning. That the show is able to transition from being a scream-off to a tight tango set to "Roxanne" only shows how limber it is. It's the sort of play we secretly love, if for no reason other than that parts of it are worth hating.

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