Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Universal Theatre Universally Entertaining

By Greg Waagner

“What in the world do you do on Cape Cod in the winter?”

It’s the question year-rounders hear more than any other, perhaps, and there are almost as many answers:   walk the beach in perfect solitude, read – or write – a great book, join a gym, take a class, learn to knit, fly south, design a garden, redecorate a room, create a festival of plays.

No really, that last one may not be the first thing that springs to everyone’s mind, but it was certainly the choice of playwright Myra Slotnick when she created Universal Theatre in the winter of 2008.  The community of the Outer Cape couldn’t be luckier that she did, because now “attend a presentation of terrific short plays” is now another option available to Cape Codders when winter blows into town.

Playwrights submit short plays, and if they are selected, must be cast, directed, and rehearsed before arriving on Thursday of the festival weekend.   One day’s rehearsal is all festival participants have in which to get familiar with the black box space on the first floor of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown before the weekend’s three performances.   Minimal are the sets of these shows, a table and maybe a couple of chairs.  The audience relies on the actors and their scripts to fuel imaginations and stir emotions in plays that last only moments.  The result, of course, is pure theatre magic.

From over three hundred submissions, eight plays were selected for UT 2012.

As Colonel Meredith Eastwood Floats in Space by Alex Dremann, was directed by Robert Locke, featuring Andrea Alton as the title character.  Alton as the spacey Colonel Eastwood is delightful as she sits at a desk, dictating a rambling log detailing her experiments and observations regarding the 86 gram gerbil, Horatio.  Her focus also seemingly untethered by the weightlessness of space, she wonders if the real experiment on the spaceship isn’t the (she hopes) burgeoning romance between her and Leiutenant Jake, her fellow astronaut.  A fun bit of stage craft had three other (sadly uncredited) performers onstage behind Alton, all clad in black with black veils and gloves – let’s call them the Zero Gravity Players – who simulated deep space conditions by animating Colonel Meredith’s lovely locks and unattended pen, as well as the now-sadly-deceased gerbil family of the intrepid Horatio, whose tiny corpses float about the cabin.

30 Love by Terry McFadden, directed by Steven McElroy, reinvents divorce negotiations as sport between a wife and husband, as portrayed by Jamie Heinlein and Nicholas Wuehrmann.  Clipped tones, short refusals and rapid-fire exchanges get them volleying back and forth through the business of who gets the house and who gets the cottage and who gets which car and finds them reviewing their history together revealing - first to the audience and then to each other - the fondness that lingers still between them.   Heinlein and Wuehrmann work well together, fresh and believable, as a couple whose love match remains undecided.

Birdie by Jyl Lynn Felman was directed by Brian Carlson,  focuses on Jane MacDonald and Melissa Nussbaum Freeman as Selma and Marlene, a pair of New England widows who’ve found friendship together following the deaths of their  husbands.  Every day they share coffee and, often, a comfortable silence neither of their late spouses ever appreciated.  Selma – bitter like her coffee - sees herself as the stronger of the two, able to drink her coffee black, while the more-lighthearted Marlene needs milk to make it palatable and longs for a little bird to fill her life with color and song.   As Marlene begins humming and laughing and exploring life on her own terms, Selma realizes she must address this feathered threat to their uneven friendship, at first with ridicule and hinting threats like egg salad and then later by whatever means necessary.

Bluff by Tony Foster, was directed by Antony Raymond, with Jacqueline Raposo as Clarrisa and Dalane Mason as Rudy.  Rudy is plagued with insomnia, playing endless games of Solitaire to pass the night.   Insomnia is just a symptom of Rudy’s problem, as it turns out.   Clarrisa appears dressed in Rudy’s clothes and paddling a skateboard ship down the hallway out of the dark.   She describes the voyage from the bedroom vividly, her sentences making a playground of language.   Rudy, as Clarrisa says, has his crankypants on because of the insomnia, annoyed by her imagination, or her wordplay or perhaps her presence.   We aren’t sure, but it’s something to do with the secret behind his insomnia.  Rudy says she’s sleeping, so perhaps this is her dream, but in fact it might be his nightmare:  Is she leaving him?  Has she died?  Is she crazy?  Is he?  Clarrisa knows, but the answer is never revealed to the audience, only to Rudy himself. The secret matters only to them, though, as the poetry of the script and the engaging performances of these two actors are enough to lead the audience along to the play’s emotional pay-off, freeing theatre-goers to apply their own meanings as Clarissa paddles off into the night.

Cassandra’s Choice was directed by the author, Richard Ballon and starred Tom Smith as Frank, a gentleman who has come to the police station to file a Missing Persons report on a man whose name he does not know.   Frank knows the man only from regularly meeting him on his street while walking his dog, Cassandra, who liked the missing fellow in question.    Their connection, he insists, must’ve been a strong one, coming as it did in a technology society that devalues individuals by reducing “You” to “U” and makes a simple touch between two people such a rarity.  Here was a young man who paid attention, unlike so many of his peers who “panic when Old Ones speak” and Tom’s Smith’s Frank is quietly heart-broken to have found and then lost their passing connection.

A Shiny Pair of Complications, written by J. Stephen Brantley and directed by Roberto Cambeiro finds an excited and slightly frazzled Kevin (played by Wayne Henry) on his wedding day, riding herd on the caterers and florists via cellphone while teaching his dad, Tom (played by Marc Castle) about cufflinks, which he explains are some of the complications that come of having money and only part of the perfection that’s expected of a gay wedding.  As they get ready, it’s clear their relationship is a little uneasy, balancing long-suffering gay son against long-baffled straight dad, each one a sort of shiny complication in the other’s life.  Henry and Castle reveal a father and son who find a sort of comfort in their perennial unease and remind us that you don’t have to understand someone to love them.

Surprise by Mark Harvey Levine was directed by Patrick Falco.  Peter (Brian Carlson) has brought Whitney (Braunwyn Jackett) to the restaurant he always brings girlfriends to when they’re going to break up with him.  Whitney is absolutely exasperated with Peter’s talent as a “two minute psychic” – he’s not psychic enough to save people or make a lot of money, only psychic enough to annoyingly finish every sentence she utters and she can’t stand another minute.  Meanwhile, Esther the waitress (Tia Scalcione) has seen these break-ups before and might know Peter better than Whitney.  She knows Peter well enough to bring him cornflakes, his break-up-in-progress comfort food, for example.  In celebration of the truth that hardly anyone pays attention to waitstaff, semi-psychic Peter couldn’t be more completely shocked to discover that she’s in love with him.

Cat & Dick was written by Andrea Alton (AKA, Colonel Meredith Eastwood) and was directed by Mark Finley.  Our title characters - an unhappy trust fund baby and an unemployed obituary writer - meet on a ledge outside the Employment Office.  She wants to end it all (this ledge comes highly recommended by others in her family) and he just wants her job.  Great laughter ensues.  Elizabeth Bell and Allen Warnock are smart and funny in this exploration of what leads one out onto the ledge.

Hearty applause is earned by everyone in this festival, with perhaps an extra hoot and holler to Stage Manager Amy Germain and Tech Director Robb Yates, and bouquets to Myra Slotnick for curating such a terrific show…and for giving us something wonderful to do in the winter.

It’s not too early to make your reservations for the third weekend of January 2013 – Myra and another amazing array of theatre talent will surely be on hand to make magic again at the UU Meeting House in Provincetown.

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