The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Monday, November 7, 2011

New from The Virginia Playwrights’ Forum

A Kind of Conscience Is Interesting Theater

            A company of nine actors and two directors have obviously put heart and soul into bringing the work of six new, ten-minute plays to the stage of Norfolk’s Venue at 35th for a two-weekend run which began Nov. 5. The result is an evening of interesting, if not always flawless, theater.
            All the plays but one are the work of local playwrights of the Virginia Playwrights Forum. The lone exception is by a student in the MA program in playwrighting at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, connected here through her teacher, whose own short play is also in the line-up.
            The plays have been gathered under the title A Kind of Conscience, suggesting some link in each to a moral dilemma that may not quite fit the norm of what we understand as “conscience.” But what that “kind of conscience” is may not be easy to spot in all the skits.
            And perhaps the word “skits” is not quite appropriate to describe this ten-minute-play form. Surely there is a particular kind of craft to it, which, judging by the examples currently on display at The Venue, seems to demand a dramatic situation focused upon a single, pointed moral or philosophical idea. It helps if the presentation also entertains an audience.
            A Kind of Conscience opens with a learned—perhaps a better word is “erudite”—contribution, Patti Wray’s “Shylock: The Jew that Shakespeare Drew.” It’s a clever idea. Shylock, played with aplomb by Cliff Hoffman, brings a lawsuit against his creator, William Shakespeare, for racial profiling and defamation of character. Hearing the case are three judges personifying Ancient Theater, Elizabethan Theater, and, in an amusing touch, Modern Theater, who is trying to catch up by reading The Merchant of Venice for her first time as the trial unfolds.
            That’s one of a few good laughs in the piece, which, however, comes to a questionably simple verdict that seems hastily developed. But what strikes me most is Wray’s documented data on the depth of prejudice against Jews found in the literature of Shakespeare’s England, where, as her Shylock points out, the elite systemically vilified and ghettoized his people—unless, of course, they needed to borrow money.
            Cheryl Sharp’s personification of Modern Theater catches attention. E. Mike Ziegler and Dale Watson as theaters Ancient and Elizabethan, having less to work with from the script, come across more stereotypically.
            Next up on the program is “Memorial Day” by Denise Dillard, a witty writer who works in layers of feelings, often contradictory, which subtly or secretly gnaw at her characters, as in last summer’s Jack and Jillian, previously reviewed in this column.
            In the present piece, on a contemporary Memorial Day a bored teen-aged daughter arrives with her mother to lay flowers on the grave of her grandfather, killed in World War II. Unexpectedly, her great-grand mother—her mother’s grandmother—shows up with flowers, too. Only they’re not really for the man the younger women think they’re for. Long-kept secrets spill out,
            Amelia Dobbs as the teenage daughter and Angela Best as her mother make a believable pair of family members—each consistently straining at the tether of the other—while Bobbi Hite keeps everyone guessing until the end, when the meaning of it all is made clear in a single concluding line reminiscent of that old Rolling Stones song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
            Closing the evening’s first act is John FX  Delaney’s chilling—at times over-chilling—”Showers,” a play of Nazi evil in which a German Jew, once decorated for heroism for his country in World War I, is sent to the showers—that is, to the gas chamber—by a cold-hearted World War II commandant who is impervious to appeal.
            Joel King is The Commandant, as despicable a Nazi as anyone has ever seen, yet at times I thought I detected a comical hint of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bombastic delivery. Perhaps that’s not inappropriate.
            Mike Ziegler is on top of his game as the persecuted innocent, Prisoner 1736, who is led out of The Commandant’s office unaware of the multiple atrocities about to be visited upon him and his family. Jonathan Hite as Schmidt, the Nazi guard, is steadfastly anonymous, a feat worth noting in any actor.
            Following an intermission, Act II begins promisingly with Shari Graber’s “The Big Success,” initially a witty satire at the expense of phonies in the world of art patrons and critics. But it ends in poignancy, a portrait of a starving artist trapped in a Vincent-van-Gogh vise of impoverished anonymity.
            Jonathan Hite is Marty, the starving artist attending the gallery opening of his latest paintings. Amelia Dobbs is Claudine, who runs the gallery. The opening is proclaimed a rousing success. A wealthy, pretentiously artsy couple, played by E. Dale Watson and Angela Best, speak for all the unseen gallery patrons in their extravagant praise for the new work, given the nod as well by art critic Vincent Montague. (Hampton Roads audiences will undoubtedly get the lampoonery).
            However, there are no sales, and, though Claudine encourages Marty to “bask in the glow” of his big success, it slowly emerges that without a sale Marty is...well, best to leave that detail for paying audiences and say only that the piece uses satire effectively before, in a questionable shift of mood, it twists the knife. For their part, Hite and Dobbs glide along well together in their shaky partnership as promoter and client.
            Providing the gallery setting are a number of easels displaying paintings worthy of attention, the work of local artist Woody McBlair. Hopefully his career is going better than Marty’s!
            “The Trunk,” by Wilkes University playwrighting student L. Elizabeth Powers, is a morality tale set in the hinterland between the death and the final destination of a man who is trying to “take it with him.” The “it” in question is a large trunk full of memorabilia from what he perceives as his failed life.
            Cliff Hoffman is the Man in this case, met on “Platform One” by Jonathan Hite as the Ticket Agent, who informs him he can only take carry-on baggage with him on the train. But since it seems he cannot let the trunk go, he must take it to “Platform Two” to catch another train for a different destination.
            The allegory soon becomes apparent, as the Man, well played by Cliff Hoffman, is essentially guided by Hite’s calming therapeutic approach to reconcile with himself and make the better choice, as all would agree who can relate to an either-or nature in an afterlife. Also appearing poignantly in flashbacks is Angela Best as the Man’s Wife.
            Jean H. Klein’s “Curtain Call” closes the evening with a woozy fantasy of the theater in which the line between life and art is all but erased.
Here, an actor, having just been diagnosed with cancer, can no longer distinguish between himself and Terry, his character, who is a terminal cancer patient. The actress playing Olga, Terry’s wife, tries to help her colleague find perspective and sort out his identity crisis. Meanwhile, the actor playing Mike, the man Olga marries in Act II after Terry dies, is growing increasingly impatient with  waiting in the wings for his part to begin.
            For it seems Terry’s meltdown is happening before an audience which has come to see the play, and as his loss of reality infects the others the play falls apart,  an ultimate theatrical bomb.
            Cheryl Sharp as Olga, Joel King as Terry, and E. Dale Watson as Mike carry on like troupers, but somehow the piece’s promising psycho-social punch doesn’t quite land. Are these actors really in a live play or are they bickering with each other downstairs in the Green Room? We’re supposed to believe the former, but too often it seems to be the latter.
            Kathleen L. McBlair and Aliki Marie Pantas divide directorial duties, with Pantas in charge of “Memorial Day” and “The Trunk” while McBlair handles the remaining four. Together they have mounted an evening worthy of their obviously considerable effort. Pantas’ sound design deserves special mention.
            The ten-minute play is something of a novelty, but with so many playwrights at work here in Hampton Roads an evening of shorts is an ideal way to display their varied talents all in one evening. There are two more performances, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 12 and 13, at 8 p.m. at The Venue, 631 35th St., Norfolk. Tickets are $12. Call 757-469-0337 for reservations.

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