Whether intentionally or not, the first half of Ensemble Studio Theater’s 29th annual marathon of new short plays tells a story that’s larger than its individual parts. The prologue arrives when a.d. William Carden steps out to dedicate the fest to Curt Dempster, who founded and oversaw the theater until his death in January. For many, that loss remains fresh, and, the plays — despite being written before Dempster died — all seem to reflect that. Taken together, they are a sweeping portrait of how people respond to suffering and loss.
More to the point, each play roughly corresponds to one of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
First up is acceptance, in the form of Billy Aronson’s touching and surreal “The News.” The play depicts that strange period of time when one realizes the death of a loved one is inevitable and that knowledge makes time with the person change shape.
Sitting in her hospital bed, Karen (Geneva Carr) learns her unnamed problem is incurable and breaks the titular news to friends who come to visit. There’s sad humor in how cell phones keep ringing as she tries to face mortality.
But the outside world falls away when Karen’s husband George (Grant Shaud) arrives planning to decorate his wife’s room with balloons. That sunny gesture ironically unleashes the couple’s anger and fear, but when balloons start flying around the room, there’s a surprising transformation. In a well-scored moment by director Jamie Richards, the couple makes peace with what they can’t change, and even the cell phones take on a new, magical meaning.
It’s a shock to follow this sentiment with the petulant denial that defines “My Dog Heart,” a treatise on doomed love by Edith Freni that literally turns a broken heart into a communicable disease. An unnamed woman (Pepper Binkley) gets “infected” by a bad relationship, allowing costumer Amela Baksic to cover her arm with a gory wound.
The rest of the play tries just as hard to be edgy. The woman and her alternative-chic boyfriends keep breaking scenes to tell the audience about the symptoms she can’t admit she has, but their tone in this direct address is obnoxiously smug. It’s as if the characters think they are too smart for their own story, making it hard to accept the supposedly tragic stakes of their love lives.
Conversely, thesp Michi Barall gently embodies the sadness in Julia Cho’s “The Last Tree in Antarctica.” She plays Sylvie, a woman whose prophetic dreams about the frozen continent lead her to the long-buried pain in her past. Cho’s conclusion spins the image of the play’s title into an emotionally potent metaphor.
In solo piece “The Probabilities,” Wendy MacLeod literally pulls her metaphors from the sky. An unnamed weatherman (Bruce MacVittie) pleads with us to take meteorology seriously by telling us about weather-related tragedies. What begins as a charming monologue turns somber, though, when he reaches a story that seems to be about his own child. MacVittie’s wrenching perf is the standout of the series.
And if MacVittie’s character is a decent stand-in for the bargaining phase of grief, Dana Delaney’s scorned wife is a chilling embodiment of anger. In Neil LaBute’s “Things We Said Today,” she joins her husband (Victor Slezak) at a restaurant in order to confront him about his affair. Director Andrew McCarthy (who appeared in the Off Broadway premiere of LaBute’s “Fat Pig”) keeps the show subtle and quiet, but it’s still obvious that the playwright is riffing on Greek tragedy: There are regular references to women like Medea, and Delaney’s pregnant character arrives in a simple white dress, like a sacrifice prepared for an altar.
Despite the hints, though, the conclusion still delivers a feral shock. While it’s not exactly gentle, the play pays powerful tribute to the theatrical possibilities of the festival Dempster created.