Berkshire Bright Focus
Play By Play Shadows: Festival of New One-Acts.
Directed by John Sowle and Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman 7/7/11
"...plundering your dreams..."
Eight new plays by eight playwrights make up a wonderful evening of theater at Stageworks Hudson's season opener. Four actors playing multiple roles in various styles with a broad spectrum of accents aided by two directors and four designers make the collection of new plays come alive. Oftentimes with collections of this sort there will be a dud or two but this year in Hudson, New York, there isn't one play in this collection that I wouldn't look forward to seeing a second time.
The actors: Timothy W. Hull portrays madness in a variety of ways with equal skill and panache. Louise Pillai brings maturity to bear on the human condition of old women, young girls, jackals and the child in mourning for losses to come. Bavani Selvarajah plays Scots servant girls, Egyptian intellects, college students, and American's with ambivalent attitudes equally successfully. Donald Warfield seems capable of making any sort of role work from rebellious colonist to gay predator to Arab dissident to angry New England father.
In short, the directors for this production of new plays have assembled an extremely talented and versatile company of players, including understudy Catherine Seeley whose one-line role was a standout laugh-getter.
The plays and their directors: John Sowle directed Jesse Waldinger's play "The Loyalist" set in North Carolina in 1755. The accents are heavily Scottish and the tale is heavily seditious. As the opening act it serves its purpose well, forcing an audience to pay close attention and to listen intently for the Scots accents are heavy and not quite consistent. The play has surprises as pasts and presents collide for the two principal characters. Sowle uses his interesting set, designed by Sowle, as more than merely a backdrop. Holding time and place in evidence it also serves as that elusive wall that retains all that is played out in front of it. No fire rages in the fireplace, though it has been laid. No bread bakes, though the dough has been visibly prepared. Instead there is the personal and political drama at hand and, in many ways, this play does a perfect job in setting up the underlying themes for the evening's entertainment.
Sowle follows this with a mono-drama, "Violence in the Air" by Zack Calhoun, in which Hull plays a man frantically ranting in improvisational poetry about the conditions of his life while staggering helplessly around a deserted subway platform in contemporary New York City. The eco-politico realm is at work here in a piece that feels awkward at first but then reveals its hidden secret in a way that both staggers the actor and our imagination at the same time.
Margolis enters the program with the third piece, "Okoboji" by Suzanne Bradbeer. Here is a bucolic setting for a melodrama of emotional crises. Two people arrive at this lake setting talking about the death of a loved one and by the time this short piece ends they have arrived at a destination neither has anticipated. The tone here is so different from the two plays that have preceded it that it is Margolis' careful direction that allows us to enter this charmed world where the color of a blue lake becomes as rigidly controlling as the agonies of the man on the subway platform that we have just witnessed.
The first half of the show ends with Zach Udko's intellectual romantic comedy "The Claw of the Schwa." This odd little play explores the erotic languor held in the hands of a teacher of speech and phonetics as one of her students becomes enraptured by the sounds of the universals in the English language. When passion rears up and reality intrudes on the schoolroom all of that romance is threatened, but realizing quickly what such a switch can do, the romance is re-ignited and laughter and erotica blend into a delicious conclusion.
The second half of the show opens with a play that takes romance and its conclusions to a different level, although the English language is still at the base of "The Review" by Yusef El-Guindi. A technical delight, this two character play could be called "The Short Story Author's Nightmare;" it would still take your breath away as it does for Hull's character more than once.
"Cloud" by Al Sjoerdsma is a mythical look at one man's personal dilemma as the dream of a difficult day becomes more and more difficult to cope with until revelations about the situation take things to a new and even more perplexing level. Both of these plays have been superbly directed by Margolis who shows in this combination a unique sensitivity to the pain of relationships that won't make sense to the participants. She carefully shows us how much work goes into maintaining the unobtainable.
Sowle makes his solo directing appearance in the second half with David Zellnick's play, "The Jackals," the hardest of the group to make acceptable. One young American woman on tour in the Arabian dessert, escorted by a Besarabian guide, is confronted by the oldest female jackal and must make decisions based on emotions rather than education or common sense. Old prejudices rule the day on many sides here and while the mythical and mystical aspects of the play are well handled it is still difficult to accept the impossible as plausible even in the face of the inimitable.
Margolis has the final play in the set: "Carol" by Ron Riekki. Here she returns to earlier themes from the plays that have preceded this one. A man, alone at night driving a dark road through bad weather, relives many of the relationships he has had or tried to have only to come to the realization that he may not have understood any of the women in his life. His desire for all becomes the need for one, someone to get him through the long night ahead. Comic and tragic all at once, this play is a wonderfully wrought piece of short fiction with an edge of reality that just about anyone can identify with without blinking. The entire company is involved in this final piece and the crudely comic comings and goings are just what the audience needs after the play that comes before this.
This year's Play by Play may well be the finest collection this company has produced. Certainly this can be said for the presentation: there is something for every taste and everything works for those who just like good theater.
By James Yeara
July 6, 2011
At the beginning of the one-act that closes the first set of the Play by Play festival, graduate student Ethan (Timothy W. Hull) stands downstage, eagerly enunciating every syllable. His eyes and vowels seem to glow as Middlesex College professor Barbara (Louise Pillai) lectures on "received pronunciation," that poncey BBC speech that Monty Python loved to mock. Ethan is enraptured with his prim and crisp professor's cultivated speech: "Everything is pushed forward in Barbara's mouth," he almost salivates to the audience as her dowel rod pointer snaps crisply over the pronunciation charts projected upstage. So when the married professor steps from the shadow of propriety and reveals the lust is mutual, the The Claw of the Schwa takes a quirky twist: "Did you know the 'schwa' is the most-often repeated vowel in an orgasm?" the linguist cougar purrs to Ethan, her pointer lightly tapping her open, upturned palm, before demanding, "Fuck me Miles" (her pet name for Ethan) in a suddenly flat, suburban intonation. And there's the rub; despite Professor Barbara's vigorous physical expostulations, Ethan is aroused only when he hears her "received pronunciation." Fans of David Ives' one-acts will revel in the resulting laughter.
Always surprising, Stageworks/Hudson's annual Play by Play festival of new one-acts is now in its 15th year; the latest incarnation offers the usual mix of the comforting, old-fashioned, maudlin, funny, avant garde, and quirky. It's like an entire year of regional theater in a two-hour (or two-and-a-half if there are "technical difficulties" with Skype: see below) package. Play by Play is a unique, not-to-be missed buffet. No theater in the area offers such boldness. This year's nominal theme, Shadows, brings the eclectic mix into full light through a medley of directing choices ably executed by artistic director Laura Margolis and Stageworks/Hudson newcomer John Sowie.
While none of the other seven plays match The Claw of the Schwa's rich linguistic and physical humor, each enriches the others, and the festival as a whole successfully bridges a broad range of styles, in both subject and stagecraft.
In the opening one-act, The Loyalist, Jesse Waldinger's conventional biographical sketch of 18th century Scottish patriot Flora MacDonald (Louise Pillai), the heroine celebrates with song and Scottish dance after they escape the British army after by disguising the would-be Scottish king as a French maid. But the quirk of The Loyalist is that it actually focuses on MacDonald's life in America, married to a Loyalist officer of the British army35 years after she saved the rebel prince. Fans of Turner Classic Films and George Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple will applaud the subject and style of The Loyalist.
The second-set opener, Yusef El-Guindi's The Review, is, both in stagecraft and subject, Shadows' most adventurous one-act. Set simultaneously in Los Angeles and Cairo, Egypt, the play centers on the Skype communication between short-story writer Ratib (Hull again who displays a solid range of accents and mannerisms that not only make each character he plays distinct, but believable and supportive of each play) and his would-be Egyptian girlfriend/editor Shadiyah (Bavani Selvarajh), who is reviewing his latest stories during the recent "Arab Spring" uprising. Beyond the topicality, what's most engaging here is the staging: Rahib sits downstage left at a table talking to his laptop while Shadiyah's image is projected on an upstage screen.
Stageworks/Hudson has always pushed the envelope on staging and contemporary subject and, in The Review, what would otherwise be a bit of conventional online narcissism becomes, through Margolis' staging, an engaging polemic on U.S.-Arab relationships, as well as male-female intimacies (or lack thereof).
Play by Play: Shadows offers what's long been the benchmark of Stageworks/Hudson: work that is at times brilliantly quirky, but always challenging and new.
Cast of 4 sparkles in 8 works in Stageworks' Play by Play
Matthew G. Moross
For The Daily Gazette
HUDSON -- With their ongoing Play by Play project, Stageworks/Hudson continues to celebrate the craft and lure of the one-act play. This season the subtitle is "Shadows," hinting at some dark mysteries or dim memories about ready to resurface. Jointly directed by the theater's executive artistic director, Laura Margolis, and artistic associate and literary manager, John Sowle, (each take on four of the eight plays on the menu), ... ...all are well-presented by the four assembled actors: Timothy W. Hull, Louise Pillai, Belvani Selvarajah and Donald Warfield.
Jesse Waldinger's "The Loyalist" is set in North Carolina in 1775, where onetime lovers meet and discover that their missed opportunity for a greater happiness may have been due to a lack of loyalty and trust, something both have learned to master during the intervening years. The actors' Scottish brogues may prove a difficult ken, but Warfield and Pillai make the motivations clear even if the spark of the love lost fails to ignite.
Zack Calhoon's "Violence in the Air," a breathless and fierce monologue, is a relentless ride. As he totters and lists on a New York City subway platform, power broker Chris raps with fury on that which has brought him to the brink of complete abandon. Hull's take on Chris' hopelessness may be too far to the angry side, distancing us from the message, but is a mesmerizing experience shocking to the core.
Suzanne Bradbeer's delicate "Okoboji" is a small moving exploration of grief and healing. Using water and wishes, Bradbeer buoyantly lifts and whispers hope with a beautiful story between two who loved one and left behind a shadow, for which both feel they are to blame. Selvarajah is perfection as a college student forced to connect with a man when she doesn't know how to. And while Warfield as the grieving dad is over mannered and too twitchy, little damage is done, as Bradbeer's dialogue is spare and pure. The moments created are truly touching.
By far the highlight of the whole evening is Zach Udko's "The Claw of the Schwa." Performed with laser precision by the downright hysterical Hull and the donnishly didactic Pillai, this erotic fantasy of diphthongs and open vowels is a marvelous mix of trills and flaps as teacher and student use bilabial play, uvular maneuvers and cumulative adjectives as they reach for some inspired interjections. Smartly directed by Sowle, every vowel and consonant in this David Ives-inspired word-fest is perfectly placed, and this play simply soars...
...Dreamlike and ethereal as it drifts in and hovers, offering an effective emotional shower, Al Sjoerdsma's "Cloud" ponders the cruelties of Alzheimer's from the inside out, packing an emotional wallop without the sting of tears. Warfield artfully delivers a simplistic narration as a delicately disquieted Hull and quietly devastating Pillai fold out a map on a journey that leads to an unthinkable hell.
The kindest axiom that can be attached to "The Jackals," David Zellnick's interpretation and re-imagination of an obscure Franz Kafka tale, "Jackals and Arabs," proves, without question, that not all literary archaeologies are worth the dig and dust.
Ending the evening on a perplexing and unaffecting note, Ron Riekki's "Carol" confuses and seems oddly empty. Listening to tunes as he drives through rain on a dark summer night, Alan is visited by girlfriends from his past who primp and coo, forcing Alan to -- what? Where he is going and what he hopes to discover along the way is a mystery that the author decided not to share, and it leaves us all looking in the shadows of the back seat for some idea what baggage may lie there.
The menu is a mixed bag with the first act proving more satisfying than the second, but the idea of a theatrical a la carte is a nice and welcome change.