Scribes mindful of tight budgets, shrinking auds

COSTA MESA –The working motto for the scribes featured in this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival seems to have been: Dream big, but plan small.

South Coast Rep’s commissioned scripts, unveiled in performances or staged readings throughout the first weekend in May, were nothing if not ambitious in locale and theme. They took us from a university campus in turmoil over government-sanctioned torture, to an exploration of veiled resistance to Golden Age Hollywood racism, to a dramatization of how musical theater spectacle may have hastened the Roman Empire’s fall.

Yet every writer was clearly mindful of feeding an art form besieged by tight budgets and narrowing audiences. No play required an ensemble larger than seven (most were four-handers). Each employed dramatic conventions and theatrical devices tailored to evoke a larger world both magically and thriftily: direct address; actors in multiple roles; locations shifted in the blink of an eye with little or no furniture; conversations conducted across space and time.

Wryly self-directed wit was very much in evidence. In John Kolvenbach’s “Goldfish,” a mom (Kathy Baker) stared at her teenage daughter (Jessi Campbell) through a lightly alcoholic haze to exclaim, “Look at you. I am flabbergasted at how beautiful I used to be.” In Amy Freed’s “You, Nero,” the emperor (Danny Scheie) anticipated his hagiographic autobiographical pageant in the Roman Colosseum with psychotic relish: “I’ve given myself a lot of thought.”

Theater itself proved to be the butt of jokes (as when, in Lauren Gunderson’s “Emilie,” a fan marveled that Voltaire (Daniel Blinkoff) had written a new play, only to be balefully informed, “They’re not hard to come by”). And there was no end of commentary on the current political and social scene, even at the remove of many centuries; Freed had one of her characters remind us “It’s easy to enthrall a mob, but not so easy to awaken them.”

If the Festival was light on anything it was raw sensuality, as per the prevailing tastes of the host theater or, perhaps, the perceived tastes of its subscriber base. The archetypal SCR play, says Fest co-director John Glore, “uses language in an interesting way, tells a good story and has a theatrical component that makes it ripe for the stage rather than another medium.” It’s a definition that pointedly omits the baser human appetites.

Admittedly there was comic lasciviousness to be found in Freed’s mad Nero and Poppaea (Susannah Schulman) earmarking this slave or that plebeian for pleasure, followed by messy oblivion. Voltaire and mistress Emilie (Emily Bergl) worked up some heat in their turn, as well.

But on the whole, it was the passions of the mind that ruled. One remembers the trio of African-American film critics quarreling over the legacy of a briefly-shining star in Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” or the agony of young Albert (Bradford Anderson), exquisitely torn between his hoped-for shining future and the need to care for a self-destructive father (Graham Beckel) in “Goldfish.”

Above all, there was the image of veteran university president Matthew Gibbon (Robert Foxworth) prowling about his study in Sharr White’s “Sunlight” like a caged lion in winter. In Dutch with the trustees, he attacked his son-in-law (Robert Curtis Brown), the law school dean who helped to draw up Washington’s legal justification for terror-suspect torture, but we knew he was really railing at a world gone off the deep end. And this “lost American liberal idealist” had few illusions about his place in that world, or his ultimate fate. “I’ve got the School of Performing Arts on my side,” he drawled. “What a relief.”

For a weekend, at least, it was a relief to see a score of performing artists take the side of good sense and expressive art.

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