Monday, April 23, 2007

Fresh from the Battle of the Bards

Spent most of Saturday volunteering and then attending the Partial Comfort Productions' Battle of the Bards. This was a great little theatrical event, all proceeds going to support the fine work Partial Comfort plans over the next year.
I was volunteering because I know Chad Beckim slightly. We were in a Mac Wellman workshop at The Flea theater a year or so ago. And Chad gets high marks in my book (along with awesome and outrageous Des Moines' playwright Tim Siragusa) for taking Mac Wellman's words to heart when he told our little class of playwrights to stay in touch with one another, help one another whenever possible, and be nice. Anytime I have emailed Chad to promote my plays or when I moved to New York-- he got right back to me with congrats or welcome emails. And introduced me around to some of the people hanging around during the day was we prepared for the battle. All above and beyond the duties owed to fellow playwriting workshop attendees that you know only slightly. I depend on the kindness of other playwrights, and Chad is lovely kind.

My job was program-passer-outer. I ended up not being the only program-person (too much responsibility for me they probably figured), and worked with an NYU (Playwrights Horizon School) acting sophomore named Nicole. They had between 300-350 attendees, and not the projected 700 or so, which is a real shame. It was a fun evening with an awesome celebrity panel and I wish more people had come out.

David Cote was the first celebrity judge to arrive (I got to see them all arrive from my posh location as program girl). I thought it was very nice of him to get there 30 minutes early, very professional. From his recent blogs, I wished I had some dramaturgical materials to hand him (perhaps about the process and history of instant playwriting contests?). But, alas I was only equipped to hand him a program. Which I did. He is a bit shorter than I thought he would be. But seemed nice. Josh Lucas showed up next. Nicole was chatting with someone and didn't notice him walk in and was then mad that she hadn't seen him. I handed him a program, too, and his friend. He looks a lot like Luke Perry in person. Then Adam Rap arrived in a white suit. Having read the article Marsha Norman wrote on him for BOMB magazine when Red Light Winter premiered in NY, where he confessed to spending whole nights in bars because he was addicted to playing Buck Hunter II (don't ask-- just read the article), I expected someone a bit more un-savory looking. Shaggy haired and red-eyed. Instead, he was very neatly turned out-- the suit was quite spiffy-- and well-kempt. Smiled politely. He is extremely tall. Signourney Weaver and Jim Simpson arrived next. They breezed passed me and did not feel the need to take programs, although I held programs out officiously, as was my job and assigned purpose. They are also very tall. Everyone else looks like children next to the two of them, and they have very regal bearings. Robert Woodruff and his wife were the last judges to arrive. I pointed out the coat check location to Mrs. Woodruff and she did not seem to want to relinquish her nice multi-colored leather coat.

Well, that ends the exciting program distribution and celebrity encounters portion of the blog. Wasn't that exciting?

On to the show. I am not clear on exactly how the contest works (an area where the program could have helped). But, the participating theaters have two weeks to come up with a ten minute play and there is a prop that is mandatory (David Lindsey-Abaire selected the prop, a life preserver). I don't know if there are any other directions to the writer (prompts, dialogue lines, cast breakdowns, etc.). Several of the plays also contained music, which I presume was written by the playwright as well.

The Resonance Ensemble went first, with a Shakespearean-themed play called O AND J (written by Jeremy Dobrish and directed by Eric Parness). The play shows a meeting between Juliet and Ophelia. Juliet fails to kill herself with a prop knife and then tries to drown herself in a river, which Ophelia hastily informs her already taken. The show goes on to playfully attack Shakespeare's misogynistic tendency to suicide-off his female characters. Sensational closing musical number "What Are You Dying to Die For?" really sold the piece for me. I think it didn't do well in the final results just because it went first. I rank it pretty highly as a contender. Charming performances from Jill Abramovitz and Erin Leigh Pack.

Youngblood went up next with ODYSSEUS (by Emily Conbere, directed by R.J. Tolan). This was a musical exploration of Odysseus' journey as a debt-ridden playwright challenged to write a play for the Battle of the Bards. Hysterical lyrics and a star-making performance by the lead, William Jackson Harper set this one worlds apart from its competitors. It could have been a trite and self-reflexive subject, but the deft writing made it charming and refreshing. I really related to the line "They call me emerging and I've been writing for ten years!" Here, here. And there was just something about the powerful, sardonic quality to Harper's voice that really made the material sing (pun intended). Featured a cute homage to the judges where Harper blatantly pleaded for votes "Adam Rapp-me in your arms tonight," being my favorite line from that section. This went on to deservedly win the Judges' Award at the end of the evening.

Partial Comfort's entry, ALL IS FORGIVEN (by Ross Maxwell, directed by Alfredo Narciso) was third. Well, the actors were wonderfully comitted (Alexander Alioto, Frank Harts, Vincent Madero, and Ivy Risser). And I thought they did an outstanding job trying to sell a script that didn't quite hold up. I think that Maxwell thought he would try to win over the audience with tongue-in-cheek crude humor. But the audience failed to see the tongue-in-cheek part and just saw the crudeness. Plot involves a fighting girlfriend and boyfriend who resolve their anger with some mutual spanking, and there is a God of Blood Vengeance and a scheming neighbor after their apartment. Spanking plays just don't work. I mean, maybe you could hold a spanking play festival (if you wanted to), and if the audience went in knowing it was going to happen. Maybe. Otherwise, it doesn't come off cute and kitchy in the way it did when Desi Arnex spanked Lucy on I Love Lucy Episodes in the fifties. Too much cultural weight now on battered spouses and association with S&M. Or something. I am not sure why it doesn't work. But it just makes the audience feel like they are swimming after the Exon Valdez and need an immediate bath. But, the actors really went for it and did an outstanding job.

The Vampire Cowboys were next with a backyard wrestling homage to great playwrights, THE UNDISPUTED BARD: PRESERVING THE LEGACY (by Temar Underwood, directed by Robert Ross Parker) . This play pitted William Shakespeare against Tennessee Williams in a backyard wrestling match for the title of undisputed bard. August Wilson runs in at the end for a surprise victory. Talk about committed actors. These guys almost went to the hospital. Slammed each other into ladders and tables. The commentary on the match was quite clever. It was less about the words though and more about the body-slam-a-minute action with this one. Reminded me of Jon Dorf's one-man show on backyard wrestling, which I saw and loved at Secret Rose earlier this year with Westly Thornton. Good times.

Ma-Yi went next with GIDDY UP ORVILLE (by Michael Lew, directed by Ralph Pena). I have to say that I gave Ma-Yi half a tour of the space early in the day, and you could not ask for a nicer, cooler bunch of people. Seems like a great place to work. The story of this one (which went on to be the Audience Choice Award winner for the evening) centered around two couples on a cruise ship. A young mother steals a life preserver from the parapalegic son of the other couple because the cruise directors are cheating and letting the parapalegic boy win diving competitions against her talented able-bodied child. I had trouble hearing from where I was standing in the back of the club (the event was held at Studio Mezmor, which is not set up for theater, needless to say). So, I couldn't follow this one as well as some of the others (sound system problem, not an actor problem I think). There was a great bit where the women got on the men's shoulders and played chicken for the life preserver. I think this one wins best use of prop and best use of the stage and environs in my book.

Then we had team Electric Pear's SWEET ON THE DONOR (by Ashlin Halfnight, directed by Seth Soloway). I saw snippets of this earlier in the day while they were rehearsing and was a little worried that the subject matter would come across as tasteless-- but was delighted to discover that this one played beautifully when seen in its entirety. It centers around a bungled attempt by three misfits to steal a kidney from one of the misfits' dentist. Obviously, the thieves have drawn their plot directly from the cautionary hoax emails about kidney thefts. I thought it was hysterical. Good acting and solid directing, but really outstanding writing. To quibble slightly, the button on the end of the play could have been a touch stronger-- it had the feel of the first scene in a longer play rather than a stand-alone. But it certainly won the coveted Johnna Adams' Award for Most Excellent Writing of the Battle. The dumbest of the three would-be thieves kept trying to put the life preserver around the dentist's neck so that wouldn't drown in the bathtub and then accidentally summons housekeeping. Ha! ha! Loved it. On a related note, Martin Denton has reviewed Ashlin Halfnight's latest full length Mud Blossom here. I intend to run right out and see it soon, it sounds fantastic.

Last but not least, we had New Georges' HOW KENNY BECAME A VEGETARIAN (by Sharyn Rothstein, directed by Shoshana Gold). This one suffered the opposite misfortune of the Resonance Ensemble and went last, which I think hurt them a bit. This wins second place in the under-publicized Johnna Adams' Award for Most Excellent Writing of the Battle (perhaps a tie with Youngblood's ODYSSEUS, I'll say). Featured a creepily-amiable serial killer who ruins his brother and sister in law's Thanksgiving with yet another brutal murder of one of their single female neighbors. The bodies are piling up in the compost/mulch garden and the excuses are getting harder for the long-suffering brother invent. This one also suffered because of the brutal, recent rape and attempted murder of a Columbia grad student. The writer came up with an unfortunately similar scenario for the murder her hapless serial killer commits, which undercut the humor (as you can imagine). But, I am perverse enough to have still liked it.

Well, that is the festival. Kudos to Youngblood and Ma-Yi on their wins. But they were all winners in my book. :-)

If anyone cares, here is how I would have ranked the top four were I a celebrity judge:

1. Youngblood (strong writing and in my opinion Will Harper put them over the top by the sheer force of his will and personality)
2. Electric Pear (you gotta' love an unraveling, bungled, email-hoax-based kidney theft plot, you just gotta')
3. New Georges (I have a sick sense of humor and this tickled it)
4. Resonance Ensemble (rough luck that they went first, I was still singing "What Are You Dying to Die For?" this morning).

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