Short and Sweet
As the house lights go up at the end of Brief Encounters, the Lake Worth Playhouse's second annual one-acts festival, the cast shuffles on stage, folding chairs in tow. Each Friday night of the three-week festival, audience members can stick around to ask questions and chat with the cast. The actors sprawl in their chairs. Some seem tentative; some elbow one another and make jokes. A hand goes up. Someone asks a rhetorical question that is obviously an inside joke. Several people on stage and in the audience chuckle. These inside jokes and the sense of familiarity are not simply evidence of the camaraderie among actors. As it turns out, these people (actors and audience) know one another well. The male costars of Words, Words, Words are cousins, and the mother of one of them is the director. The costars of Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye have been in acting since high school, but this is their first opportunity to perform side by side. It's safe to say that just a bit more prodding would unearth the cousins of ex-boyfriends, grandsons of former neighbors, and coworkers twice removed. An outsider might ask, What is this -- some small-town form of thespian nepotism? No. It's community theater, a long-standing institution based on the noninstitutional: talented community members working together with few resources to put on high-quality theater.
The festival of one-acts is not a part of the Lake Worth Playhouse's regular season but a summer addition and fundraising opportunity. It is co-produced by Cameron Harris Penovi and Daniel Burgess, who both direct and act in the series, along with Executive Director Paula Sackett, who gives a gritty performance in Self-Torture and Strenuous Exercise. As Burgess explains, the festival is an opportunity for actors and directors to push themselves to new limits by taking on challenging roles and projects. "We encourage directors and actors to find roles and scripts that they are passionate about," he says. "That's the most important prerequisite." It is also an opportunity to feature new talent like Steve Fabian, a local piano virtuoso, actor, and FAU student, who debuts as director and playwright in his one-act premiere, The Dinosaur Sleeps at Midnight.
Albeit brief, these encounters could never be called bereft of either quality or intensity. A playbill that brings together works by Lanford Wilson, Christopher Durang, and Harry Kondolean promises to be a plunge into the romantic, the psychotic, the maniacal, and the hilarious, and the energetic acting of this talented troupe makes good on that promise.
One of the highlights of the evening is Lanford Wilson's Ikke, Ikke, Nye, Nye, Nye, directed by Cameron Harris Penovi. Wilson's talent for combining humor with quirky glimpses of human nature is given full rein in this very funny one-act. This is the tale of two star-crossed lovers -- not crossed by fate but, oddly enough, by phone wires. Graham, the son of the CEO of a large corporation, and Edith, one of the company's switchboard operators, go on a date and end up at Edith's apartment. At first glance Graham (Daniel Burgess) and Edith (Marisol Ramos) appear to be two mismatched misfits. Graham's Coke-bottle glasses and asthmatic lisp suggest a life full of gym excuses, inhalers, and allergy injections. Edith's romantic experience seems to have been derived solely from dime store novels. When he mentions work, she goes off on a completely melodramatic, almost free-associative tangent about cold steel buildings and the gray-flannel soldiers who man them. Blending elegant and grandiose mannerisms with a Judy Garlandlike, ruby-slippered wistfulness, Ramos creates a character who is both ridiculous and endearing. Graham, on the other hand, just wants Edith to leave the room so he can dial random numbers and make obscene phone calls. Burgess is a riot with his itchy-fingered panting and steamed-up glasses, symptoms that seize him uncontrollably at the mere mention of a telephone. The sexual energy of each seems to ricochet past the other until Graham excuses himself to go to the bathroom and Edith receives a prank call so dirty and perverse that it leaves her postcoital on the couch, faintly muttering, "Smut, oh beautiful smut."
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Nature or nurture? Malice or lack of medication? These are potential subtitles for Christopher Durang's Naomi in the Livingroom, directed by Burgess and starring Penovi as Naomi; Marisol Ramos as her daughter-in-law, Johanna; and Mathew Chapman as Naomi's son, John. Naomi is a walking id. At one point, lying in a gelatinous heap on the couch grinding herself into the cushions, Naomi almost has an orgasm just thinking of what she is doing. Oddly enough her ever-waning sense of reality is attached to household etymologies: "The living room is for living. The bathroom is for bathing." She stumbles to find place for the word kitchen in her obsessive lexicon and comes up with "The kitchen is for kitsch." When Johanna and John stop by for a visit, Naomi yells absurdities and insults while the young couple tries to make small talk, pretending this is a normal visit. Marisol Ramos' pleasant but barely concealed panic is a great juxtaposition with Penovi's edgy pacing and ranting. The scales of normalcy tip when John excuses himself and returns not only dressed as a woman but (here's the Durang touch) dressed like his wife. A disheveled Peggy Lee with hot-pink lipstick liberally applied to mouth and cheeks, he proceeds to mock, like a bratty child, everything Johanna says. "Maybe he's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline" seems to be the maxim of the day. The verdict for nature over nurture seems to be in as Johanna screams at her husband and mother-in-law, "It's in the genes!"
Words, Words, Words, written by David Ives and directed by Ray and Sherry Norkus, is based on the philosophical adage that three monkeys typing into infinity will eventually create Hamlet. Through simple but effective circus-monkey costuming (white, short-sleeve, button-down shirts and bow ties for the boys, a pink tutu for the girl), our three chimps -- Kafka, Swift, and Milton (Jenny Senior, Sean Norkus, and Patrick Freyman respectively) -- pull us right into the cage. The actors' capable gestures (peeling and relishing bananas, one-finger typing, philosophical speculation punctuated with armpit scratching and swinging on tires) paint a contradictory yet comical picture of this interesting philosophical premise. At the end, abandoning the experiment and resigning themselves to monkeydom, Swift proposes killing the scientist in charge by challenging him to a duel and poisoning him, and Kafka begins to read aloud what he is typing: "Hark! Who goes there?" unknowingly heralding the creative virtues of randomness.
What we fear may be a pedantic narrative device in Steve Fabian's The Dinosaur Sleeps at Midnight turns out to be redemptive. Professor Dick Shinary (yes, "dictionary"), an uptight British bibliophile and wordsmith played by Sergio Soltero, stands stage left with a mammoth dictionary in hand. The professor narrates the plight of the play's protagonist and translates the "big" words into palatable, monosyllabic ones for the audience. Jaytee (J.R. Coley) is hopelessly in love with Tanya (Erin Schwartz), a voluptuous vamp who will never be capable of returning his affection -- "a slut," translates Professor Dick. As the not-so-interesting plot of boy-wants-girl, boy-can't-have-girl, boy-gets-other-girl-instead unravels, so does the professor's erudite façade. It's always a thrill to see a Brit come unhinged, and Soltero's performance is no exception. By the end of the play, his heckling and insults to both the cast and the audience add some much-needed irony to what might otherwise be a simplistic story.
Self-Torture and Strenuous Exercise, written by Harry Kondolean and directed by Nikki Dietz, is the story of two couples caught in a vortex of neuroses ranging from suicidal tendencies to beatific visions of God in kitchen pots and pans. Perhaps the longest of all the plays, it is somewhat tedious. One highlight is Patrick Albano's success in integrating elements of both a born-again Christian and a Jewish mother risen from the dead into his character, Alvin, a jilted and blindly altruistic husband.
The set design for Brief Encounters is sparse: a couch, a couple of chairs, a chain hanging from the ceiling in one play; a wooden bar in another. There are very few sound effects and no variation in lighting. The theater, a black box that seats about 60, is stripped of everything but the basics. It is in this reduced state that we are reminded what makes memorable theater -- good writing and acting. The last weekend of the festival will present plays by Tennessee Williams, Wendy Wasserstein, and Alan Ball, who recently won an Academy Award for his screenplay American Beauty. With new scripts, directors, and performers but the same bare-bones set and high-energy acting, it's a must-see.
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