Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Wide Variety of Possibilities - Ensemble Studio Theatre Marathon Evening "A"

By Judd Hollander 

Perception and changing realities are the keys themes running through Evening A of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's annual Marathon of One-Act Plays. Evenings "A" and "B" playing now through June 25th.

Evening A consists of five works in various stages of development, several of which have the potential to be much more than they are right now. The entire evening clocks in at approximately three hours, with two well-placed intermissions. Fortunately, the time for the most part, flies quickly by.

Things begin with Ten High, Ben Rosenthal's rather intriguing piece about two very different sets of people congregating at different areas of a nondescript bar. Jane (Tina Benko) is accusing her husband Miles (Chris Ceraso) of having an affair, a fact he categorically denies. As they argue back and forth-she has no substantial evidence other than her suspicions-Luke (Danny Mastrogiorgio) is going through a crisis of faith, being a professional killer and having failed to execute his latest target because he felt sorry for the intended victim. As Luke talks with his mentor Al (Ned Eisenberg), Al man unveils his newest tool of the trade; a poison so powerful it can kill in seconds, which he and Nick arbitrarily decided to test on Miles if he leaves the bar within a certain period of time.

This is play about coincidence and happenstance, (i.e. "of all the gin joins in all the world...") and just how fickle fate can be when peoples' lives intertwine, if only for a moment. None of the characters are really fleshed out, though Benko does a nice turn as a presumably wronged wife. However it's the story that holds one's interest here, with director John Giampietro nicely keeping the audience on the edge of their seats by slowly building the tension throughout the work. In another reality, this entire scenario might be an interesting television series. Though the idea may not be new, it's still quite involving.

Play number two, School Night by J. Holtham, looks at teenage and twenty-something angst and the need to belong to something, somewhere. In a nondescript suburb where nothing seems to happen, teenager Ammon (Curtis M. Jackson) asks classmate Lucy (Lucy DeVito), a girl who's "been around" (to put it nicely) over to his house one evening when his parents are out of town. However when Ammon gets home, he finds that his ner-do-well older half-brother Daniel (Lance Rubin) has unexpectedly stopped by. Daniel is in mourning for his dead cat, who he keeps in a nearby box. With the raging hormones of a teenager, Ammon wants Daniel gone so he can spend time alone with Lucy, but Daniel has no intention of leaving just yet.

The main theme here is people trying to escape their pain if only for a moment; Lucy being ready to jump into bed with Ammon because it's something to do for a while and then forget about. Though Ammon would like it to mean much more. At the same time Ammon and Lucy want to grow up and move on, while Daniel would like nothing better than to turn back the clock and come home. It's a premise with possibilities, but the characters are neither that interesting nor likeable, the text staying too much on the surface when it should be delving deeper into the lives and psyches of those involved.

The centerpiece of the evening is the excellent Tennessee by the late Romulus Linney. In 19th century North Carolina, farmer Herschel (Rufus Collins) works his land with soon to be of age son Cardell (Eamon Foley), as wife Mary (Julie Fitzpatrick) looks after the new baby while getting dinner ready. As the family is about to relax after a hard day's work, an Old Woman (Kristen Lowman) appears, saying she has walked all the way from Tennessee, a distance of about 80 miles, in order to return to her family home. The very place Herschel and his brood now call their own. Soon this stranger begins to tell the story of her past; of being a strong-willed woman with no patience for men and insisting she'll be nobody's wife. That is until Griswald Plankman (Scott Sowers), a kind and quiet, if not the best-looking fellow, promises to sell his land and move with her to Tennessee, a place she has always wanted to go, if she'll marry him. Never believing Griswald will do such a thing, the Old Woman agrees. But he does just that and she finds herself forced to honor her promise before the two set out on their journey.

As the Old Woman tells what happened long ago, director Harris Yulin takes Linney's wonderfully literate text and makes it all come brilliantly alive. During the course of the play we watch as the Old Woman takes the audience through her life, and the triumphs and tragedies that go with it. An important touch to this are the expressions on Herschel, Mary and Cardell's faces as they become enamored with the tale, smiling at certain points, looking serious at others. (At different times, they also become characters in this play within a play Linney has conceived.) Yet toward the end, the playwright adds a completely unexpected twist, causing those observing, both on stage and in the audience, to question just how much of the Old Woman's history actually happened, while adding an element of "The Twilight Zone" to the proceedings. Lowman is outstanding as both as the elderly woman and her younger self, the actress taking the entire narrative and making it almost explode off the page. Collins does a realistic job as Herschel, a proud man who has worked hard all his life for what he owns. Fitzpatrick is good in the smaller role of Mary, projecting a nice earthiness in the part. Sowers is excellent as the quiet and seemingly browbeaten Fitzpatrick, and possibly the one person actually in control of the entire situation. Foley is okay as Cardell and Helen Coxe is good in a brief cameo as the Old Woman's Tennessee neighbor.

This is the also first time in Evening "A" that the show's scenic deign plays a vitally important part in conveying the story, (good job by Jason Simms), the set being nicely constructed to give at various times, the impression of a farmhouse at twilight, a long wagon trip and a Tennessee home. Geoffrey Dubar's lighting is also quite good here.

From the longest play (Tennessee) we move to the shortest, In The Middle of the Night; the latter a work quite powerful in its own right. Student Dan (Jared McGuire) and his girlfriend Sherry (Irene Longshore) break into a building for a bit of excitement, only to be followed by Dan's rather overprotective mother Elise (Coxe) and her friend Jack (Sowers). Elise clearly someone who does not want her son and Sherry to be together. However it soon becomes apparent Elise has a desperate reason for her actions. Sherry perhaps not being as real as one first suspects, but rather an illusion/fixation in Dan's mind, with his mom desperately trying to understand her child's condition and help him.

McGuire does quite well here, slipping in and out of reality while never changing his overall attitude towards what is going on around and inside him. Coxe is excellent as a mother helpless to come to the aid of her child. Longshore is fine as the image who wants Patrick to stay with her, with their final dialogue together showing the depths of their commitment. Sowers does well as a sort of stand-in for the audience, watching the proceedings from the perspective of an outsider while seeing a scenario that's obviously happened many times before. Deftly written by Billy Aronson and well-directed by Robert Davenport, the show presents a look at mental illness not from its starting point, bur rather from somewhere in the middle, with an ending definitely open to interpretation. This is a show that could easily be expanded upon, showing events before or after those events seen on stage. Very good indeed.

The final work in the Evening "A" series is Bike Wreck, written by Qui Nguyen. It's both the darkest in terms of subject matter and also the most violent. It's also a play that centers on the subject of perceptions. As narrator/actor Michael Louis Wells mentions more than once. Perceptions about being talked down to, perceptions about race and attitude, and perceptions about what's really important in life. Also discussed are perceptions from the way one handles a gun, to the way one carries oneself when dealing with others, and the way one faces pressure (both from peers and outside influences) when having their very life threatened.

Wells plays "The Man," a white, middle of the road, somewhat struggling businessman who is accosted by a Bike Messenger (Charlie Hudson, III) and a Delivery Boy (Arthur Acuna). The Messenger is a youngish African-American who The Man sees everyday, while the Delivery Boy is a somewhat older Chinese delivery person, trying to learn both English and respect from others, both subjects as taught to him by the Messenger. Yet as the play shows, time and again, perceptions and people's reactions to them can spell doom for all involved if they let one lets passion outpace reason. Nicely directed by John Gould Rubin with good acting all around, this is another play that could definitely be expanded, both character and plot-wise.

While not a completely perfect evening, in EST Evening "A" the hits far more than make up for the few misses. The result being a collection of works definitely worth seeing, and where three hours go by in almost no time at all. Check this one out if you can.

Ten High
by Ben Rosenthal
Directed by John Giampietro
Stage Manager: Alice de Cent
Featuring: Danny Mastrogiorgio (Luke Montcreif), Ned Eisenberg (Al Clay), Chris Ceraso (Miles Dancey), Tina Benko (Jane Dancey),

School Night
by J. Holtham
Directed by Abigail Zealey Bess
Stage Manager: Kate Pressman
Featuring: Curtis M. Jackson (Ammon), Lucy DeVito (Lucy), Lance Rubin (Daniel)

by Romulus Linney
Directed by Harris Yulin
Stage Manager: Mark Karafin
Featuring: Rufus Collins (Herschel), Julie Fitzpatrick (Mary), Eamon Foley (Cardell), Kristen Lowman (The Old Woman), Scott Sowers (Griswald Plankman), Helen Coxe (Neighbor)

In The Middle of the Night
by Billy Aronson
Directed by Robert Davenport
Stage Manager: Kelly Ruth Coxe
Choreography by Wendy Seyb
Featuring: Jared McGuire (Dan), Irene Longshore (Sherry), Helen Coxe (Elise), Scott Sowers (Jack)

Bike Wreck
by Qui Nguyen
Directed by John Gould Rubin
Stage Manager: Philip Rudy Fight
Choreographed by Carrie Brewer
Assistant Director: Heidi Carlsen
Apprentice Director: Beth Drenning
Featuring: Michael Louis Wells (The Man), Charlie Hudson, III (Messenger), Arthur Acuna (Delivery Boy)

Costume Designer: Rachel Dozier-Ezell
Sound Designer: Chris Barlow
Press Representative: Bruce Cohen
Scenic Designer: Jason Simms
Production Stage Manager: Danielle Buccino
Technical Director: Derek F. Dickenson
Lighting Design: Geoffrey Dunbar
Production Manager: Kevin Feustel
Casting Associate: Stephen Brown
Properties Designer
Bruce Al Kraemer
Casting Director: Tom Rowan
Associate Producer: Web Begole

The Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 W. 52nd Street

(between 10th & 11th Avenues)
Tickets: 866-811-5111 or
Running Time for Evening A: 3 Hours
Series A ended June 18, 2011
Series B ended June 25, 2011

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