Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Brevity and Wit -- A Winning Combination

When viewed on the printed page (or on a computer screen), a playwright's words are flat and two dimensional. Only when actors speak those words -- or someone reading the script imagines how they might sound -- does a play come to life.

During that process a director may work with the actors to find appropriate rhythms in the text and any significant pauses that could enhance the dramatic experience. Just as a pianist must look for rests, fermatas, and pedal points in a composer's score, it is up to the actors and director to figure out exactly what  might be the best way to bring the playwright's words to life.

When blessed with good writing, a script can soar like a balloon floating just out of reach or ricochet around a stage like a volleyball intent on defying gravity. Words can hit home with the force of a fastball or hover in the air like the disillusioned sigh of an underwhelmed mother-in-law.

Writing comes to life when it is shaped by sound, punctuation, and the physicality of actors on a stage. Several short plays recently demonstrated what can happen when top quality dramatic ingredients reach a critical temperature under the knowing guidance of a sensitive stage director.

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The Bay Area One Acts Festival is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary with two programs of short plays co-produced by small theatre companies scattered around the Bay area. Written by Crish Barth, directed by Colin Johnson, and produced by Round Belly Theatre Company, The Fall scored a major triumph in transforming one of the most banal experiences into a rollicking keyboard comedy.

Barth's play was inspired by an online chat group which started to discuss Natasha Richardson's skiing accident in March of 2009 but, as so often happens in chat rooms, quickly veered off course.  The five participants who are furiously tapping away at their computer keyboards are:
Because none of the characters are facing each other, the audience is allowed to savor their incredulous -- and sometimes angry -- reactions to whatever gets posted in the chat room. This can range from Joy's smug sense of superiority to Dave's astonishment at what is happening to the discussion he's trying to moderate and keep civil.

Joy (Maura Halloran), Dave (Brian Quakenbush) and Steve (Lucas Buckman)
at their keyboards in The Fall (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

The audience also gets to witness snarky bits of dialogue like the following:
(Steve) "There is no God.  Steve."
(Maria) "There is no Steve. God."
Considering how boring some chat room dialogue can easily become, Barth and Johnson deserve kudos for being able to mine comic gold from a discussion sparked by a tragic accident. I especially enjoyed Maura Halloran's tightly-wound performance as Joy.

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Capturing a sense of goofiness with words is easier said than done. That's why I was so impressed by Twice As Bright, a short two-character play by Daniel Heath that was produced by The Playwrights' Center of San Francisco and beautifully directed by Sara Staley.

Oscar (Ray Hobbs) is a soon-to-be divorced microbiologist who studies pathogens and claims to be "clean in ways that most people couldn't even imagine." Jen (Nicole Hammsersla) is a family doctor employed by Kaiser Permanente whose limited social skills may only work in an examining room.

Ray Hobbs as Oscar (Photo by:Clay Robeson)

When they meet in the Reno bus station, Jen has set herself a goal of falling in love with the next man she meets and then breaking up with him before getting on her bus (which is due to leave in 10 minutes). Her near-farcical attempts to seduce Oscar are shaped by the woman's desperate loneliness, social ineptitude, and rigidly linear patterns of thought. Oscar, on the other hand, is open to more possibilities. At first he may come across like a loser, but as a scientist he knows how to take an idea and run with it.

Nicole Hammersla as Jen (Photo by:Clay Robeson)

Daniel Heath's script was bright, insightful, and wonderfully wacky.  I thought Ray Hobbs and Nicole Hammersla did a splendid job of capturing the nervous energy required for this bizarre and hilariously dysfunctional encounter (cruising a bus station hasn't been this much fun in years).

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Over at the Exit on Taylor, Cutting Ball Theater is presenting the Bay area premieres of a trio of short plays by Will Eno. Directed with a great sense of timing by the company's artistic director, Rob Melrose, two of the plays are so beautifully crafted that they almost take one's breath away. As Melrose explains in his program note:
"Both Beckett's and Eno's plays are filled with a wicked sense of humor.What separates both authors from their contemporaries, however,  is their profound depth.  Their work burrows down into the most intimate vulnerabilities of the human soul.  With both writers, at one moment I am laughing myself to the floor and the next I feel as though I am having an epiphany. What makes Eno 'a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation' is that he is so much of our time. Just as Beckett exploited the forms of slapstick comedy, vaudeville, and silent movies, Eno puts his profound ideas in the forms of stand-up comedy and the 24-hour news cycle.  The fact that he is able to tackle such weighty themes in these forms is exactly what makes his work so surprising and catches us off guard. He is one of the most exciting playwrights alive today and having him in residence at Cutting Ball this March is an extraordinary treat."
The first two plays were an absolute delight.  In Lady Gray (in ever lower light), Danielle O'Hare performs a monologue that is achingly funny.  Stream-of-consciousness writing is not easy to bring to life onstage unless it is carefully crafted and punctuated in such a way as to win over the audience.

Ms. O'Hare's brilliantly underplayed performance  -- in which she recalls a painful memory about a "show and tell" experience in grade school --  was a triumph of timing, inflection, and wry contradictions. The actress describes Eno's script as follows:
"He's very precise, very funny, and a little bit more on the literate side of things. He plays with language in a clever way. He's brilliant with punctuation.  The difference between a pause versus a period can make a world of difference in how a line is interpreted."
Danielle O'Hare as Lady Gray (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

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Intermission is a beautifully constructed one-act play for four actors who sit in theatre chairs facing the audience. They have just finished watching the first act of a ridiculously pretentious play about the mayor of a small town. When the house lights come up at intermission, their struggle to make polite conversation is not helped one bit by the age difference between the two couples.

David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman, and
Danielle O'Hare in Will Eno's Intermission. (Photo by: Rob Melrose)

Jack (Galen Murphy-Hoffman) and Jill (Danielle O'Hare) may be heading up the hill of their marital relationship but there's no question that Mr. (David Sinaiko) and Mrs. Smith (Gwyneth Richards) are tumbling down the other side after too many years in each other's company. Mrs. Smith (a role perfectly tailored to an actress like Estelle Harris) is also quite adept at letting everyone know her husband's shortcomings. Great, great fun!

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Alas, I was unable to enjoy the final piece, Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, because the young Asian woman sitting next to me (who had only arrived at intermission) stood up midway through David Sinaiko's monologue/death scene, put her two wine glasses down on her seat, and proceeded to step over several people in order to make an early exit.

To say that she ruined the moment for the people around her would be a gross understatement. But that's part of the thrill of live theatre!

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