New Ground Theatre's 2015 Playwrights Festival: One-Acts was, for me, a mixture of "Ha ha ha!" and "What the hell?!" I either laughed heartily during the five debuting works or sat confused as to the points their playwrights tried to make.
Author Sam Collier's In My Mother's Tongue Like Winter, directed by Chris Jansen, kicks off the performance with Molly Wilkison's gun-toting Robbie finding Emma Van Vooren's vagabond Lou sleeping on her tree farm. Over the course of an awkward, somewhat rambling conversation, we learn that a grolar bear - a grizzly and polar bear hybrid - escaped from the local zoo and it's his roars (delivered by Michael Carron) we're hearing from off-stage. Once Carron's bear appears, costumed in bear-claw slippers, white sweatpants, and a brown hoodie with bear ears, he speaks with a poetic eloquence that's baffling only because the other characters' lines are not nearly as well written. As I listened to Carron say such things as "Your hunger smells dark, like blood in your skin," I wished Collier had written more of the lines along that vein - or just excluded the part with Robbie and Lou discussing the animal, sticking instead with the bear speaking of zoo life and longing for human flesh.
Mary Katherine Gale's 1593 Farnum follows, the latest in her front-porch anthology, with previous scenes staged in prior New Ground festivals. Directed by Christina Myatt, this was my favorite one-act of the evening for its uproarious humor, natural plot progression, and pleasingly shocking ending. Its story features teenage best friends Katlyn (Sarah Wallace, in the most sincere portrayal I've yet witnessed from her) and Jenna (Kate Dakota Kremer). As Jenna stops by during her daily run, the two talk about an upcoming dance, what they'll wear, the hotness of Katlyn's step-father (Gary Miller), and, most importantly, their business - which we learn is selling worn socks on the Internet, with Katlyn wanting to branch out into other garments. Of the short pieces of Gale's I've seen, 1593 Farnum marks the one with the most realistic dialogue - though credit should be given to Myatt, Wallace, and Kremer for keeping the pacing at appropriately fast-talking teen levels - and the least amount of unnecessary exposition. It also whet my appetite for the larger anthology in which it fits.
Jason Platt's Critics Corner, directed by Fred Harris, is almost as strong as Gale's piece. The one "flaw" in his story about Dillon (Jack Theiling) and Tessa (Kylie Jansen) drilling Tom (Gary Miller) about a revealed secret is its overt cleverness. The story starts with Tom's unheard revelation that seems in the same vein of someone coming out of the closet. Yet while humorous and an excellent display of Theiling's and Jansen's verbal chemistry - apparent through their mouths and their hands - it's too obvious that Platt is setting up a misdirection. Once Tom's secret is revealed, it doesn't come across as much of a surprise because Platt has already made it apparent that the secret isn't what we were led to expect. That being said, once the revelation is out of the way, the trio launches into an hysterical conversation about science-fiction movies and characters, with topics including whether Hermione should've ended up with Ron or Harry. The conversation's subjects and the three friends' assessments of them elicited not only laughter during Saturday's performance, but also nods and sounds of familiarity and agreement (or disagreement) with what they thought.
I found author Chris Jansen's Call Your Grandma nearly as funny at times, though in need of a little more revision to tighten up some of the dialogue and sharpen the humor. Directed by Christina Myatt, the piece introduces us to sisters Pruitt and Holly (Shelley LaMar and Molly Wilkison), the latter of whom is staying with Pruitt to avoid being arrested for murder. Jansen makes a valiant attempt at writing Holly as somewhat bipolar, with her sweet, genial nature belying her murderous ways. (We eventually learn that she's behind more than one death.) And the dark humor comes in the form of Holly's nonchalance as she talks about convincing her college roommate to commit suicide, even buying the gun - because the girl wasn't in the mood to shop - so Holly could get straight A's that semester. I was tickled by Jansen's concept and comedy, though I did think Wilkison played Holly a little too extreme in terms of her goody-goody nature, offering a caricature of an air-headed sweetheart rather than a realistic one.
At this point during Saturday's 7:30 p.m. performance, I looked at the wall clock and thought, "We might be out of here by 8:30." That did not happen, as the festival's final one-act is the longest, and also the most confusing. Writer/director Kate Dakota Kremer's Opera of the Telephone at Delphi takes place in a call center in which five employees, under the direction of manager Krista (Ashley Hoskins), work the phones to drum up ticket sales for the Delphi Theatre. That's the main thrust of the piece, with subplots for each character making up the rest. Greg Bouljon's Stuart encourages the others to help reach their sales goal so they can see Cirque du Soleil as a reward, but is also dealing with the death of his daughter. Jackie Patterson's humorously prudish, friendly Deena isn't sure she wants to see Cirque because she thinks it's sexual in nature. Gary Miller's Rick endures Krista's flirtations, likely as an obsequious effort to advance in the ranks. Jack Theiling's Bobby waits for a return call that could make him number-one in sales. And Sarah Wallace's Cass struggles in her work and, when confronted by Krista, is challenged to make even one sale. There's a lot going on here, but other than adding more details in each character's story, there's nothing that weaves them together other than their workplace.
As Opera of the Telephone at Delphi went on and on and on, I found myself increasingly frustrated as I tried to make rhyme or reason of its point. What was Kremer trying to say? What about this story was meant to be entertaining? (Its length didn't help, other than allowing my irritation time to grow.) Perhaps Kremer was just offering a slice-of-life look into a call center and its employees, but still, the dialogue meanders - as do the actors in her loose staging - and seems forced, and features too much exposition for most of its characters. I will always applaud anyone's effort to create and the desire to put their creations out there, as happens in New Ground Theatre's annual playwrights festivals. But that doesn't mean art such as this doesn't sometimes require more work.
The 2015 Playwrights Festival runs at the Village Theatre (2113 East 11th Street, Davenport) through March 15, with the five debuting one-acts staged on March 13 and 15, and a reading of Christopher Grassi's new play This Side Up presented on March 14. For tickets and information, call (563)326-7529 or visit NewGroundTheatre.org.