Over the years, the Padua Hills Festival has developed a reputation for its dark, cutting-edge tales of suburban horror and its Method-style, process-based approach to theater. But at what point does the process become an end in itself?
The grand pere of the style, John Steppling, has been quoted as saying, “We do plays here you wouldn’t do elsewhere. Usually this kind of work is discouraged. The key difference here is that Padua develops writers, not plays.”
If only they developed plays, audiences would not be subjected to the self-indulgence of these writers, who might then mature beyond their points of departure rather than becoming caricatures of themselves.
Case in point is the first of Series A’s four one-acts. “Failure to Thrive,” by Neena Beber, is about a man who may be a killer (Michael Shamus Wiles) constantly stifling a woman (Jessica Hecht) from self-improvement, as they observe their daughter (Kara Westerman), who may not be their daughter, act like a bird, which she thinks she is. And it’s under-directed (by Beber) to boot.
In “Disgrace,” John O’Keefe proves to be a better director than playwright. In his hillside romp, the audience is treated to exceptional performances from Denise Poirier, Dahlia Wilde and Susan Van Allen. They play a trio of deranged nymphs who have escaped from the local sanitarium and are intent upon making amends over the man they alternately loved and murdered.
The performances are as diverse as the actresses and, under O’Keefe’s skilled direction, the key women play off each other with aplomb.
Of the three plays reviewed, the evening’s finest offering was “Terra Incognita,” from Maria Irene Fornes. Three American tourists in Spain face the demons of their own past while they are confronted with the ravages of the country’s less-than-humane living conditions, and the reminders of the white man’s abuse of the Indians. Fornes’ lyrical language contains a piece of paramount magnitude.
There were too-long pauses between the pieces; the evening, slated to begin at 7:30 p.m., did not start its final act, a work by John Steppling, until nearly 11:30 p.m.
This, coupled with the cold at the outdoor performance, lured several audience members (including at least one reviewer) away from the clutches of potentially more dark depravity, and into the relative safety of their cars and the Golden State Freeway.