Things That Sting and Bite

It’s that time of year again. No I’m not talking about the holidays. I’m talking about Wasatch Theatre Company’s Page-to-Stage Festival, currently in its eleventh year. If you are unfamiliar with this wonderful annual event, I’ll bring you up to speed. The name really says it all: Page-to-Stage. Every year WTC invites local playwrights to participate in various writing workshops and staged readings for the purpose of developing and honing their craft. An invitation is also extended to the public to submit their work for the chance to have it reviewed, and God willing, selected for production.

In the earlier years of the festival, the scripts that were chosen were both produced and directed by WTC, but in recent years, a collaborative effort between WTC and several other local theatre companies has allowed for a broader scope of artistic vision and execution. The pieces are directed by various companies and produced by WTC. The offering this year includes ‘Short-Shorts’ (six 10-minute short plays), a personal favorite of mine, and a series of One-Act plays. I was happy to receive the assignment to review Short-Shorts.

I arrived at the Studio Theatre inside of the Rose Wagner Center Performing Arts Center and was warmly greeted at the door by Brian Pilling, WTC board member and producer for this years Page-to-Stage Festival. The black box space is intimate with three-quarter seating. The stage, a reasonably sized and slightly raised platform, which proved to be just right for this setting and purpose.

I was hopeful that the evening would prove to be thought-provoking and entertaining; I was not disappointed. Its impressive how much talent we have locally, and a great deal of it has been packed into Short-Shorts 2011. There were some notable stand-outs. Among them was Queen Bee by Laura Nuebauer, directed by Jared Greathouse and presented by the Hive Theatre Company. We are introduced to Levi (Spencer Belnap), a rather nerdy yet charming looking fellow, in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and bow tie, has planned a romantic picnic date at the dam. In his picnic basket, a bottle of Shiraz and a mustard-only egg salad sandwich (just the way she likes it). With the snap of his fingers, Levi commands the sound tech to set the mood with jazzy music.

Soon, Beatrice (Tiffany Greathouse) a young woman clad in overalls and armed with a pen and notepad creeps into the scene and begins observing Levi’s behavior; she is clearly interested in the male subject and the romantic encounter he has planned. Poor Levi seems as though he may be getting stood up and the curious Beatrice steps in for a closer look at the subject and is not only noticed ‘noticing’ Levi, but steps on and squashes the perfect sandwich made just for his true love. After some witty verbal sparring, Beatrice breaks the news to Levi that he has been stood up.

At some point she finds cause to explain her presence at the dam and pulls from the bag she wears slung over her shoulder a jar containing the queen bee she has taken from a hive she is observing. She has embarked upon an experiment, she explains, to find out what will happen if the hive loses its only reproductive female. Belnap and Greathouse have great chemistry, and playing opposite each other their comedic timing was just right. A cameo appearance by director, Jared Greathouse, as the morose and bearded Queen Bee was wonderfully funny. I do not actually know if this cameo was written into the script, or an inspired interpretation of the material, but I do know it would not have been the same without the addition. This short was the bees knees.

Another gem in the mix, was Shark Week by Matthew Ivan Bennett, directed by JC Carter and presented by Around The Globe Theatre. Dirk (Robert Easton) and Neil (G. Morgan Walton) are two friends, bros if you will, who share a special bond. The bond of Shark Week. Over the past decade or maybe even two (after all Dirk and Neil appear to be 30-somethings and the Discovery Channel has been airing Shark Week every year since the summer of 1987) these two best bachelor buds have spent the whole of every Shark Week solidly planted in front of the boob tube, consuming mass quantities of junk food and geeking out over Tigers, Bulls, Whales, Threshers and Hammerheads. There’s just one problem this year though; Neil is married now and he can’t just play sick to get out of work just so he can sit on a dirty couch, next to a slob of a guy, in mess of an apartment for an entire week. He’s got a wife to take care of and its time to grow up and move on.

Neil seems rather torn between the ‘Shark Week Vows’ he and Dirk have made, and the vows he has made with his wife (whom Dirk refers to as the Walrus) at the alter. When Neil tries to tell Dirk he’s leaving and he can’t do Shark Week anymore, Dirk chides him to remember their pact: Jaws before bras. The script is well-written and I loved the interpretation offered by ATG. I particularly loved the lighting effect used to simulate a flickering television set in the dark, as well as, the use of actual sound bytes from various programs which have aired during Shark Week. Very enjoyable.

Two Funambulists Walked Onto a Wire by L. Isabella Iasella, directed by Shellie Waters and presented by Pygmalion Theatre Company, was by far, and for a number of reasons, the most challenging piece I saw during the evening. As the lights come up we see a very attractive-looking young woman with a hairstyle and makeup reminiscent of the 1920’s in a modest and fairly elegant looking costume. It is the color of champagne and sparkling in appearance and has been paired with a pair of black high-heeled shoes; a rather odd choice of footwear for a woman stepping onto a wire, which in this case, is represented by lengthy piece of colored tape angled diagonally across the stage. We soon discover that this pretty wire-walker is the best of pupils, excellent in form and grace, great balance and center of mass, and her name is Twinkle (newcomer to the stage, Hattie MacLeod). We also see with her the abrasive and berating, Monsieur Postiche (Jeffrey Owen). He is dressed in hot pink tights and the torso portion of a gorilla costume. At each end of the ‘wire’ is an implied platform with the expected accoutrements: an umbrella, a balancing pole, etc.

From the start, it is apparent that tension is there on the high wire and that the Monsieur is rather a bully, repeatedly calling his pupil by the wrong name, and insulting  and berating her. He is also rather fond of the four letter F bomb and seems to call upon its charms every fourth of fifth word; at one point he even tells Twinkle how good she is to put up with his ‘potty-mouth’. The entire exchange takes place with the actors performing their routine upon the ‘wire’ and I can tell you that from where I was sitting, it was easy to see that the physical demands of the piece, in combination with the required coordination to walk and stay on the wire, made this an incredibly challenging piece and I was impressed by their ability to stay focused and in character.

The conclusion reveals that Monsieur is a fake, and has cheated and lied his way into a position of authority and respect at the presumably prestigious funambulist academy in which the story takes place, but even after the ‘big reveal’, when the lights went down, I was still wondering what that was all about. Later in the evening I had an opportunity to visit with the director and she was gracious enough to take the time to explain to me that the piece was a metaphor. I won’t spoil it for you, but I feel the script needs work and that even the most intellectual of theatre patrons will likely have a hard time recognizing the intended metaphor. Perhaps with some revision, the problem could be solved. Director, Shellie and her cast of two did a considerably good job, with such a challenging and difficult script.

My final standout is The Other 25%. A cleverly conceived short play by Jim Martin, directed by Yolanda Wood for People Productions. You would think this story was ripped from last week’s headlines if you didn’t know better. Nicole (Erin Hillstead Walton) is a doting mother of one, who just can’t say ‘no’ to her ‘little’ guy; he gets so hungry though! The State has become aware of Nicole’s sons weight problem and has stepped in, to remove the boy from the custody of his enabling and irresponsible mother, you know, for his own good. Enter the uptight and somehow Velma-esque caseworker, Fran Bennett (Michelle Hall), come to take physical custody of the child and transport him to a State-run program where he will be made to exercise and learn new eating habits to reverse the ‘abuse’ he has suffered at the hands of his mother. Nicole makes an excuse that the boy needs more time to get ready and that he will be down from his bedroom shortly, he just needs more time.

The two go back and forth discussing the events leading up to the State’s intervention and what the success rates of the ‘rehabilitation program’ are, as well as, what will happen if it is not successful, but throughout this tête à tête, it becomes obvious that junior is not appearing and that Nicole is stalling. Fran’s patience is running thin; she has a schedule to keep and some place she needs to be. I noticed early on the color-coordinated, but uniquely distinct costuming worn by each of the women, which seemed to hint at a connection between the women, just waiting to be revealed. Nicole tries to reason with Fran, telling her she will make the changes the State wants her to now and there is no need to take her son away. She will change, and look: she already is, can’t you see the carrot sticks and diet coke in front of her?!  The story takes a twist when a mysterious envelope appears and inside it, the leverage Nicole needs to make the problem of Fran Bennett and the State of Where-The-Hell-Ever disappear. Nicely played, Nicole, nicely played. I had a lot of fun thinking about what might have been in that envelope.

Overall this was a delightful evening of entertainment, which also includes the enjoyable short plays Buried by Beth Bruner, directed by Jesse Peery for the Egyptian Theatre Co., Two Tables by Greg Near, directed by Cristina Caputo & Candace Christensen for Avalon Isle.  Go check it out, its definitely worth the $15 ticket price.

Remaining performances for Short-Shorts are at 8:00 PM at the Studio Theatre inside of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center on December 8, 10, 16 (with a question and answer session to follow), and at 1:00 PM on December 17. Tickets can be purchased online through ArtTix.

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