Five full-length play readings and four shorter excerpts, all in one weekend. That’s a lot of theater. It’s hard to remember everything, much less summarize each individual play — and pointless, since many of the plays will be tweaked and revised this week, so a thing that I call out may not even exist when you see it this weekend. (You are planning to go this weekend? It’s not often you get to be in on the early stages of some really terrific plays, so you probably should see at least one, if not all, of these readings.)
Nevertheless, here are some of my takeaways:
- every tongue must confess by Marcus Gardley. Missed this one due to illness, but everyone’s been buzzing about it. Marcus Gardley is beloved.
- Whisper From the Book of Etiquette by Claire Chafee. Follows a couple that decides to adopt a child, but unfolds unlike anything you’d expect from hearing the phrase “follows a couple that decides to adopt a child.” I thought it was staged really well. Staged readings are an art in themselves. This one followed my line of thinking: namely, that any kind of miming of action (holding up a fake “phone” or pretending to pour wine) looks dumb and distracts the actors, who are already trying to act while fumbling with a script. Just have the actors talk. This technique worked particularly well when the main character was “on the phone” with her mother in New York; both characters were onstage, faces toward the audience, no fumbling with mimed phones — and those were some of my favorite moments.
- Crane Story by Jen Silverman. The story of an American girl who goes to Japan to investigate her brother’s suicide, interspersed with puppetry that tells the story of a Japanese folk tale about spirits and death. This one proves my theory that there’s becoming a definite “Brown” style. A fair amount of the plays that come out of that program have something like rain in an elevator or ink that runs off a page onto the stage or walls that catch fire or ceilings collapsing or something that would seem to be “impossible to stage.” It frees up the writer’s mind; it gives the designers something interesting and theatrical to work with; sometimes it leads to gorgeous and theatrical moments; sometimes it feels kinda tossed in and self-indulgent; but it’s definitely becoming a style.
- The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. Set in a Memphis hotel room on the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination. Just two people in a room, in real time, and yet possibly the most compelling of all the plays I saw. Steven Anthony Jones as Martin Luther King and Jahmela Biggs as a maid just took control of the stage. The dialogue was brilliant, the story fascinating, and the message intriguing. Got a standing ovation, which doesn’t happen at a lot of readings.
- BASH (Bay Area Shorts) by Erin Bregman, Jonathan Luskin, Greg Beuthin, Joan Bernier. Four short excerpts from longer plays. Jonathan tells the story of a guy with early-onset dementia, but goes out of his way to make it a story we’ve never seen before. Instead of a sad, On Golden Pond love story, it features a couple who may have been on their way to divorce before illness set in and shows how frustrating and funny life can be. Erin does a cool soundscape and experimental take on Pandora’s Box. Greg has a play he developed in a Just Theater New PlayLab that I was in; it was great to see his fable come to life. And Joan takes real reporting from Iraq, along with new reports, podcasts and the like, to get to the truth of what happened in Haditha.
- Danny Casolaro Died For You by Dominic Orlando. Fantastic! The true story of Dominic’s cousin, an investigative journalist who died while investigating all the many scandals in the Reagan/Bush administration. I loved how the play would throw a bunch of information at you and then have someone give a quick, funny wrap-up to make sure you followed. Brilliant dialogue and an amazing, true story.
- Safe House by Geetha Reddy. I know Geetha from PlayGround and saw the original ten-minute play this one’s based on. Geetha does a great job of using the original play as an inspiration but making sure the full-length stands on its own. I’ve seen a few people get this wrong and use the exact story arc from a ten-minute play, dragging it out over 90 grueling minutes. Geetha expertly avoided that trap, giving us a funny yet harrowing story of a woman whose desire to protect her children goes comically and then crazily and then tragically too far. Also, this was another one where the direction really worked: getting the play up on its feet rather than sitting in chairs helped us easily follow the nonlinear story.
Afterwards, some of us headed off to Liverpool Lil’s for beers, although I spent 99% of my time talking to my playwright friend Rick McKern, who I don’t get to see often enough. But I’m sure a good time was had by all, judging by the laughter coming from the other end of the table.
Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Jul 25 – Aug 3, at Magic Theatre. Tickets at playwrightsfoundation.org.