Saturday, June 14, 2008

PFF informal review

At the final go-round of Playwrights Festival Forum at the Civic, Bobo learned a few things.
He learned that playwrights should not condescend to their audiences, or write one-joke plays that don't develop into anything significant -- and that asking $14 for an evening of playlets that are still rough around the edges is asking too much in a town that doesn't take to brand-new plays very much to begin with.
The quality wasn't high; the Civic didn't promote it enough; attendance was poor (though the 36 bodies there on Friday night were considerably more than reports Bobo had heard of the festival's opening weekend). Some observations:

DJ Edmiston's "Workshopping Shakespeare" contains the kernel of a good idea in its title, then remains at the predictable level. What if *Hamlet* had been over-analyzed to death? Edmiston is a talented actor and should keep writing plays, but this one is predictable from its very title. The "Hamlet" instead of "Cheeselet" joke was a groaner the first time; by the sixth time, it was seriously annoying. The premise connotes some sophisticated thinking: intense analysis of the greatest dramatist. Instead, we got cheap jokes.
Anthony Arnold's entry from Toronto, The Oracle and the Scribe, was bad Beckett, but a reasonably good imitation. A bossy old crone kept spouting pseudo-profundity to an infantile amanuensis in a baby's crib. The play rambled aimlessly, then ended with praise for the virtues of independence and self-determination. It mixed in jokes with all its portentous-sounding abstract nouns.
Will Gilman's Always felt sincere but too much like a Lifetime movie: a guy grieves his wife who died of cancer. Nice segues from the psychologist's sessions into scenes of playfulness between the two young lovers, and the post-death scene aroused sadness -- but also the feeling that we'd been manipulated.
Three of these six plays were predictable; three had interesting twists at the end. A mixed bag, then. Once a playwright comes up with an interesting premise, it's his or her job, even in a 15-minute play, to take us to some issue, debate or event that we didn't foresee at the outset. Matt Harget's 15 Minutes takes a schlub of a guy into and then out of rock-star fame inside of 15 minutes -- saw it coming all the way, but what makes a good one-liner story pitch ends up feeling belabored and over-extended in the 15 minutes of real time that it takes to unfold onstage. Same with Edmiston's and Gilman's plays: They don't go anywhere, don't develop.

Clearly the best play of the night (watch: PFF judges and voters will think otherwise) comes from the clearly most experienced playwright of the group, Bryan Harnetiaux. Antipasto opens with a waiter primping before customers arrive (why so fussy, David Hardie, if he's going to be inept and tardy later on?), and then a married couple upset at poor table placement in a fashionable restaurant. In the darkness just outside, a half-dozen homeless people lie in rags, like scuttling crabs at the bottom of the ocean. A few others join them. After much comic bickering, the woman brings them food. And then, in a great coup de theatre, she is enveloped by the swelling mass of homeless urchins and specters. (Bobo was sitting 12 feet away and still doesn't know how what happened, happened. Freaky.)
(I get the same feeling when I catch the bus downtown: Wealthy diners at Niko's, just the other side of the glass from the street kids and the whacked-out druggies waiting for the 49 bus to arrive, right there on the sidewalk outside. But what does Harnetiaux's ending MEAN as social commentary?)
Hosking's Con Science takes a trite setup -- an alcoholic having to decide a debate between an angel and a demon -- and gives it some interesting twists, both in plot and characterization.

Acting stars of the night, each in three roles: Max Nightser doing a slow burn as Shakespeare and genuinely grieved as the widower (though not as genuinely dumbfounded by the rock star dude's windfall as perhaps might have made it more persuasive). And Kari Severns as the cancer victim, a funny/bitchy restaurant customer, and a devilish con woman.
Nightser can do funny hauteur and was sometimes moving as the bereaved husband, so he's got range.
Severns is a beautiful comedian with a voice she can make squawk and yelp. Can she also stretch into dramatic roles?

If the Civic didn't have the courtesy beforehand to inform Bryan Harnetiaux and Sandy Hosking clearly that the demise of PFF was under consideration by its board, then H&H have every right to take their festival elsewhere and see if it can survive at all in another venue and without the Civic's backing. Hard to say if they'll be able to make a go of it. But the Civic has jettisoned ONE of its most distinctive features -- and the proof of that lies in its own promotional materials and press releases, which have routinely trumpeted the PFF as ONE of the most noteworthy ventures at the very-well-supported, exceptionally good community theater across Howard Street from the Arena.
The only play that Bobo really wanted to discuss afterward was Antipasto, so he didn't stay. But it's great that PFF has allowed for that kind of audience interaction. Opinions will vary; workshops do have their value.
Nice to see playwrights in the audience, stagehands scurrying, about 14 actors taking bows at the very end: people doing what they love, for nothing. Too bad they have less opportunity now to do it.


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