Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Theater: Ensemble Studio Theatre's 30th Annual Marathon

I heard about this tiny theater's One Act Marathon (three sets of five one-acts each) through a random mention by an acquaintance, and, since my mom was visiting and needed to be entertained, I picked up a few cheap-o tickets and hoped it wouldn't be too dreadful. Luckily, it was totally brilliant, and we laughed our asses off. We saw program C, which consisted of the following:

In Piscary (Frank D. Gilroy), a co-habitating couple about to get married break their engagement over a fish tank and a game of scrabble, both which serve to focus the man's anxiety that he may be too good for his fiance, and both which serve to demonstrate that, in fact, she is actually too good for him. The play is well-written; the actors (particularly the woman) were perhaps over-doing it, but it was the first of the night, and we all needed the warm-up.

There's no question that In Between Songs (Lewis Black) is the main attraction of the show, and although my pop-cultural retardation means that I don't actually know who Lewis Black is, I have heard the name before, and I now know why. I fell not only into my mother's lap laughing, but almost out of my chair (no exaggeration). At the beginning of the play, two middle aged men sit on couches in suits and stocking feet, listening to Bob Dylan and smoking a joint. That's sort of hilarious already. The music dies, and their exclamations on Bob Dylan devolve into a bout of unstoppable laughter and a spiritual realization. A woman comes in from the kitchen (offstage), where she was making something, but can't remember what, having thrown the box out the window so that the contents could be "free." The conversation turns to distinguishing the 60s versus the 70s versus the 80s versus the 90s versus now, and then they realize the music has been stopped all this time (perhaps ten or fifteen minutes); something must be wrong with the stereo. . . but no, the next song comes on. Time expanded between songs to allow for the entire conversation to elapse. This is the perfect kind of one-act: the elucidation of small things in real time through plain characters. The three actors were pitch-perfect.

Flowers (José Rivera) is the strangest play of the evening, in which an adolescent girl wakes up one day with larger-than-ever zits which then begin to sprout leaves, and then flowers; she grows into a plant and her little brother is the only witness. Feminine teenage hysteria has never been so poignantly illustrated; the girl vacillates between thinking that she is being punished by God and that she has been chosen as a vessel for something amazing. Masculine teenage disinterest, too, is perfectly captured, as her brother continues playing video games and wondering why his sister thinks she's so special. . . until he realizes that she is, and keeps her from committing suicide with hedge clippers. At the play's end, she has elegantly twisted into a tree, and her brother tends to her with a watering can. The tone is less magical realism than simple metaphor, with a twist of ecological sensationalism. I think it's difficult for actors to play younger roles without being patronizing, and these two twenty-somethings did pretty well at playing their tween characters with tenderness.

My mom loved every play of the evening except Japanoir (Michael Feingold), but I didn't mind it terribly, though it was on the long side, and arguably not a genuine one-act (more like a very short 20-act). It was the only drama of the evening, consisting of an interview of a Japanese filmmaker by a caucasian woman intermixed with scenes from two movies (with seeming intertwining plots and doppelganger characters) he is filming: Love Movie and Money Movie. The filmic themes include family secrets, underhanded business dealings, illicit relationships, defiance, murder, cover-ups, prostitution, etc., and are far less interesting than the themes covered by the interview, including the nature of film, the filmmaker's relationship to other Japanese filmmakers, and Japanese versus Western film. His answers are, of course, semi-inscrutable (he is concerned about the air in his films; he proposes that film is darkness; he would like to make a film that consists merely of the sound of hot water being poured into a teapot), and the play thus manages to be amusing, valid, and offensive simultaneously. The actor who plays the filmmaker is perfect, as is his interviewer; the others—players in the films—have less to work with and therefore aren't quite as captivating.

A Very Very Short Play (Jacquelyn Reingold) isn't really that short, but it is hysterically funny, and is probably the most demanding (for the actors) of all the evening's plays. A man (with a giant basket) and a woman (reading a book) are seated in adjacent airline seats, and after he stares at her for quite a bit, he speaks to her; she tries to ignore him and focus on her book, but he goes on at poetic (Seuss, not Auden) length about her charm, eventually asking her just how small she is. She answers that she is one foot tall. He confesses to being more than twelve times her height. He produces a variety of foods from his basket and wins her over by feeding her a cream puff. They fall in love, and the pilot's voice (narrator's voice) over the intercom tells us that they exit to dance amongst the stars for a bit. Never was anything so inoffensively sweet.

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