New Works Festival
Cape Fear Theatre Arts
Thurs-Sat., 8/18-21, 8 p.m.,
or Sunday matinees, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Theatre Arts, an arm of City Stage, brought not one but two shows to Thalian Hall last weekend. In the studio theater, they offered a New Works Festival, featuring plays penned by local writers, titled “How to Fall in Love in 10 Minutes or Less.” In Thalian’s Rainbow Room, they revived “Always…Patsy Cline,” which has shown at City Stage during two previous theater seasons. Its popularity has grown because of the timeless music and story of the country star. Alas, I can only hope the popularity of the New Works Festival also catches on for a reprise, as it exposes the local writing talent seemingly brewing on our scene.
The 10-minute play genre is far from new. It grew out of Vaudeville and was officially noted in the early ‘20s with the publication of an anthology of 10-minute plays. However, its modern popularity is traced to the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 10-Minute Play Festival. Several collections of the plays presented there have been published; in fact, winning their national “10-Minute Play Contest” is considered to be the top honor in the genre. As a result of the popularity, the festival has spread across the English-speaking world, and presentations can now be found in Canada, Scotland, Australia and around the U.S.
As playwright and “How to Fall in Love…” director Nicholas Gray said to me recently, “With a 10-minute play you have to know where you are heading pretty quickly.”
“How to Fall in Love in 10 Minutes or Less” consisted of nine plays about that universal theme we’re all very aware of. Though slightly misnamed, every play is not necessarily indicative of falling into romantic love, as much as showcasing different forms of love in general. Audiences should not expect to see nine different renditions of the expected “boy meets girl” storyline. People will not leave sighing deeply, looking into their date’s eyes and reaching for their hands. Still, the New Works Festival is a great showcase of writing and acting talent, all of local caliber.
The audience has the opportunity to see 10 playwrights (collaboration accounts for more playwrights than plays) and 11 performers take on 21 roles throughout the evening. For example, Morganna Bridgers plays a wife holding back a miraculous secret from her husband, before transforming into a UFO enthusiast with a crush, and then a fat friend at a night club. (For the record: contrary to what the Wingman says, she is not a “fat five”—she is in fact a gorgeous 10). An evening like this allows opportunity for an actress like Bridgers to show her range. She plays different ages, with sophistication and desire, all in less than 30 minutes. Not to single out Bridgers, the cast was strong all-around; no weak links let the rest down.
The evening opens with “Dial L for Loser,” the expected recap of dating disappointments that would be necessary for a festival of plays about love. The evening takes a dark and soul-searching turn with ”Babybird” by Brad Land and Lynn Casper. It is the sort of piece that actors like because, though it is wrenching for the audience, it allows them to work with emotions that are not actively explored in the dialogue but are the meat of the piece. Charles Johnston and Kate MacCallum are well cast, and though it is not bright or happy, it certainly expands their talents while pushing the audience to listen more closely.
Regular theater patrons will be happy to see familiar faces: Christy Grantham and Rachael Moser bring to life Ingrid Jungermann’s “A Marriage.” This is a timely piece coming from New Yorker Jungermann (who also used to be the theatre critic for encore during her residency in Wilmington). For those who missed it, New York now recognizes gay marriage by law. Presented by two women discussing the possible dissolution of their marriage, the show explores what exactly brought them to the breaking point.
Moser and Grantham are both skilled actresses who avoid the easy and obvious choices of simple stereotypes. Grantham makes good use of her environment onstage without overwhelming it. She is an actress who focuses on what she is physically interacting with, drawing the audience’s attention to her. Moser and Grantham succeed in showing us the subtle push and pull for power without it becoming a tennis match. In 10 minutes, that is tough to control.
New faces appear, too: Emily Kester and Declan Sammon, most notably, in my favorite piece of the evening, “Met” by Isabel Heblich. It is actually a variation on the boy-meets-girl theme, based upon a real life report of a woman who fell in the Met and accidentally tore a Picasso. As a closet romantic at heart, this is what I really wanted to see: a love match that has kindness, respect and intellectual discussion. Yes, I want it all and Heblich provides it in spades. It is the antithesis of “Wingman: A Satire!”, which captures everything I hated about dating. Morganna Bridgers is the aforementioned “fat friend” at a night club, who is undergoing a truly humiliating courtship ritual with Charles Johnston. That they both sell it so well is disturbing, but only because we, the audience, all recognize those people.
Nicholas Gray’s “The Two UFO-ologists” shows two people trying not to fall in love in a far-away galaxy. It is an interesting evening that looks at love through a kaleidoscope rather than a telescope. It is an interesting way to end the show, too: looking for something outside of ourselves, scared of what is right next to us. Is that not a classic take on the unrequited love story?
I was expecting the classic minimalist approach to set and costumes: Put everyone in black, and use some folding chairs or black cubes as a set. It is difficult to put together nine different sets and costume nine different casts. Au contraire! Though the cubes showed up, they were not black but in fact multi-colored and sufficient enough in number to construct furniture pieces. In addition, Gray uses projected images to create backdrops. As a result, a piece like “Babybird” gets a backdrop of a house, some woods and a symbolic red cardinal. Then, “Wingman: A Satire!” turns into the classic nightclub, with neon signs, without heaving massive props onstage. It is an added dimension for production value.
I hope this becomes an annual event. Coupled with Big Dawg’s New Play Festival and The Browncoat Pub and Theatre’s regular production of original works, we are very lucky to have not only gifted playwrights in Wilmington but opportunities to see their work staged by talented performers.