Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On Location: Acorn Productions

Acorn Productions, a non-profit performing arts organization housed in Dana Warp Mill, will be presenting its annual Maine Short Play Festival at the St. Lawrence Arts Center from March 20-29. But on Friday, they exhibited six short plays that will not be on the festival's playbill last Friday night at their Dana Warp Mill space.

A crowd of between thirty and forty crammed into a relatively small room in the historic mill. Acorn evidently didn't expect that type of turnout, because they were scrambling to supply an eclectic collection of chairs and a bench to accomodate the rear ends of the spectators. Unlike the harried seating arrangements, the stage simply consisted of five music stands with a black curtain serving as a backdrop.

"Pirates of Leisure" written by Erin Enberg opened the show. The play was about a young professional who is abruptly yanked into a rowboat parked in Portland Harbor. Populated by strange characters, the rowboat is the scene of a drastic epiphany for the yuppie. But the character's internal revolution occurs too quickly and without much development. Developed characters weren't a problem, however, in Kerry Rasor's "Arianna."

Taking its title from the liberal pundit Arianna Huffington, "Arianna" features a middle-age couple sitting down to a leisurely weekend breakfast in Newark, New Jersey. Initially placid, the breakfast quickly devolves into an increasingly frenetic domestic squabble featuring all the cliched arguments you can think of regarding the conservative/liberal divide in American politics. Karen Ball as the liberal wife and Joe Quinn as the conservative husband performed well, especially considering they were performing sans rehearsal. The play required both actors to spit out pugnacious lines, but it also called for each actor to create clumsily romantic scenes that required Ball and Quinn to be careful where they placed their hands and their lips. Unfortunately, their performances and the Rasor's snappy dialogue was mostly overlooked during the post-event discussion period by a couple audience members who were stuck on the play's Newark, New Jersey setting.

"Again" by Michael Crockett was the first play of the night to emotionally wallop the audience. It featured a repetitive scene in which a bitter son lashes out at his helpless mother and blames her for his abusive father. Christopher Reiling packed a punch as the son, and Paul Haley played the father with a healthy mixture of restraint and guilt-ridden bitterness. Linda Winton as the mother articulated the woman's feebleness remarkably well, especially against Reiling's thrashing son. Though we're given clues throughout the play, it isn't obvious until the very end that we're made aware that the title refers to the continuous loop of this scene in a hellish purgatory.

Denver Whisman's "Got Them Low Down Dirty Cotton Picking Blues" was next. And if Kelly Rasor's "Arianna" consisted of quick, sputtered lines, Whisman's "Cotton Picking Blues" featured long, stuttered monologues. To be fair, Antonio Jackson gave a heroic effort as Deathro, a Sudanese refugee in the American south. But there were a couple loooong stretches in which Jackson's Deathro struggled through broken English to recount his tortorous ordeal in an African labor camp. Joe Quinn, who played Parley, a Southern cotton depot worker, was merely an empty suit who drawled a question every five or ten minutes just to provoke another long and halted soliloquy from Deathro. The audience seemed to respond strongly to this play during the question and answer period and most agreed that the play required more action.

My personal favorite, "Father's Day," was next. Written by the absent Jay Lawrence (all the other writers attended the evening's readings), "Father's Day" explored the relationship between Paul (Steve Schneider) and Paul's father (Michael Howard). Essentially, father and son are fishing and the initial verbal jabs at each other gradually escalate until the father huffs and puffs about Paul ruining his life by forcing him to work so much just to provide for Paul and his mother. Michael Howard stole this play (again, it was remarkable how well some of the actors did considering they did not rehearse their roles) with his blustery force. And Steve Schneider's low-key, sardonic Paul so greatly contrasted Howard that the differences between the two provided the ending of the play with its melancholy.

The one play that truly suffered from a lack of rehearsal and deeper thought was Jefferson Navicky's "The Anesthesiologist." Accompanying the actors on stage throughout the night was a narrator who read stage directions to help the audience visualize the action (or lack of action) intended for each short play. So throughout the night, characters' conversations were occasionally interrupted by the narrator pointing out that Character A would actually be running around the stage at this time, if this play were being acted out instead of merely being read. Novicky's "The Anesthesiologist," however, required a narrator reading stage directions and a narrator involved in the actual story. Because of a lack of planning, though, the stage director was also responsible for reading the very poetic settings and actions of the piece. So when the audience is watching the play as presented, we're instinctively focusing only on action of, say, snow falling. But because we the stage direction narrator and the narrator narrator were the same person, the audience could not necessarily appreciate the beauty in which Novicky's describes the falling snow. Anyway, it would've been nice to hear this surreal play once again now that I understand it as a metaphor for the slow descent into anesthesia. And if it had two different narrators.

Mark Seiz's "Seeing Red" was about the dementia of an elderly dad and the frustration this dementia caused for his son. The play lasted about seven minutes or so, but the characters were never on the same page. Since it was Seiz's aim to accurately portray the frustration for both characters when a loss of memory and sequence is involved, his play was a success. But from the audience's perspective, not so much.

And rounding out the evening of short plays was Laura Jones-Katz's "A Noose is a Loop." A story of how a couple responds to the arrival of a baby (its name is It, and this is apparently the first installment of a trilogy based on It's life), this play should probably have been recognizable to this (amateur) reviewer. However, the play's bizarre characterization and esoteric language made it so that, unlike "The Anesthesiologist," I probably wouldn't fully appreciate it even after a second reading.

- John C.L. Morgan

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