Love, loss and grapes: One Acts charm audience

In four performances spread over the weekend, the Festival of One Act Plays demonstrated the extraordinary diversity of playwriting being done by our own students in the theatre department. The short plays were written by the spring 2010 members of the theatre class “Playwriting.” There are more than enough plays in existence to sustain our campus actors for all eternity, but it was refreshing to get a taste of what our resident playwrights are capable of.
With eight one-act plays ranging from about a minute and a half to half an hour in length, the series was split into two sets of performances and situated in the intimate ’62 Center Directing Studio. All the plays made use of the same basic set of sparse props – several pastel-painted chairs, a four-legged table and a pair of rectangular blocks – providing a subtle but much-needed consistency across the widely varying stories.
The first set of plays offered stark contrasts in subject matter, length and story development. Casey York ’10 and Mike Leon ’11 collectively wrote the first, third and fifth plays in the set, each only a couple minutes long and focused on a loving but conflicted couple. These brief snapshots illustrated the difficulty of creating poignancy, particularly in regard to romance, in such a short frame. With limited room for character development, dialogue slipped frequently into platitudes of love and romance, and the the pairing of neurotic girlfriend (Tess McHugh ’11) and all-too-easygoing boyfriend (Lucas Bruton ’11) seemed to become a sort of archetype of the relationship that just doesn’t quite work out.
The third play of this set was a longer piece focusing on the moral dilemma of a 19th-century Southern jailkeeper struggling to decide whether or not to help a black man who claims he was falsely accused of rape. Ifiok Inyang ’11 (the prisoner) and Jimmy Grzelak ’13 (the keeper) created the perfect contrast to drive the plot forward. Inyang’s performance was dangerously quiet, calm and resigned to the world but full of faith, while Grzelak’s nervous tics and constant movement portrayed his character’s uncertain, naïve bluster, ironically challenged and driven to action by his prisoner’s quiet sureness.
The fourth play, Blast Radius, centered on the impact of a terrorist attack on one woman’s life. With convincing performances by Aspen Jordan ’11 and Evan Maltby ’11 as the two main characters, the play also made effective use of lighting and scene shifts to enhance the audience’s understanding of the woman’s journey to letting go of tragedy and moving on. Rather than merely moving props as a brief, unacknowledged break between scenes, director Noah Schechter ’12 had Jordan herself drag around chairs and tables as she was speaking, deepening our understanding of her mental and emotional turmoil.
Across the wide variety exhibited in the first set, together these plays shared an unusual characteristic: They each ended with a revelation, overturning the audience’s illusions (for the three about the couple, it was the very realization that it was actually the same characters). It was interesting to observe how differently this same aspect could arise in such different pieces.
The second set included three plays, each about a half an hour long and as equally varied as the first set. Dotty and Strangers on Morning in the Park, written by David Phillips ’12, created an original and interesting premise, but it fell short due to the challenge it presented itself. The piece seemed to center on the hope that anyone might find love in a park, so five “somebodies” named Dotty, sharing a name and basic details but fundamentally different in character, arrived at a park in the morning seeking connections with other people. Seemingly in order to differentiate among them, each character had a rather eccentric set of mannerisms and tics that were so distinct as to be distracting from the content of the play. For the actors and director, this is an understandable result of trying to portray five characters in the same basic situation.
The next play, The Last Wooden Sailing Ship, transported the audience to an eerie, unfamiliar world of constant rain, floods and destructive waters. Incredibly, with some sticks and a handful of pastel chairs arranged in odd ways, director Robert Baker-White, professor of theatre, managed to create a desolate and doomed landscape. With this backdrop, the ethereal performance of Christina Adelakun ’13 as Claire reinforced the mood of despair and, ultimately, resignation to leaving behind what she cared about most: her brother, portrayed by Chris Gay ’13.
The final piece, Berries of Wrath, introduced a situation that seemed initially all too familiar: a pair of co-workers complaining about their boss. Both men leapt into the scene, swearing, yelling and slamming tables – tendencies that continued throughout the piece. Though their steady stream of cussing and shouting initially gave the impression that each was trying to one-up the other in terms of machismo, as the piece continued and their true frustrations were revealed, it became clear – though the f-bombs never faltered – that despite their bravado, the two men were partners who cared about one another. The energy and aggression portrayed by both Kyle Martin ’12 and Peter Drivas ’11 was essential to the poignancy (and hilarity) of their final reconciliation, as they worked together to come up with the word “grape.”
With such staggering variety, it’s difficult to sum up these two brief hours of performances. Like many others, I came away impressed and inspired by the bold choices, creativity and hard work evident by all the students and faculty who were a part of making the festival a reality. I for one am hoping that it will be back again next year.