Theater Review: EST/LA’s 2016 Playwrights One Act Festival (Program A)

A one-act play is a difficult beast. It is challenging enough to construct a cohesive, complete narrative within the typical three act structure. Successfully communicating all of the necessary information while also making an interesting, creative statement in as short a time as ten minutes is not an easy task. Ensemble Studio Theatre’s currently running Playwrights One Act Festival is presenting 14 one acts, spread out across three different nights of programming that are running in repertory for the month of July. I recently attended “Program A,” which includes five short plays that span a wide range of topics and genres.

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Up first is “Red and Blue,” written by Wendy Graf and directed by Shaina Rosenthal. The shortest of the plays in Program A, it consists of a post-coital conversation between two women (played by Simone McAlonen and Tarah Pollock). They end up having a disagreement, the source of which you may be able to infer based on the title and the fact that the story takes place in Washington D.C.. Given the small space, the choice of setting the action in a bed and not shying away from portraying intimacy is a bold and admirable one, and definitely adds an intimate feel to the piece. Every time the characters’ conversation approaches an interesting conflict, however, the script steers away without truly exploring it, and by the end you’re stuck with the feeling that nothing actually happened.

The second piece, “Tempted,” written by Jennifer Maisel and directed by Roderick Menzies, is essentially a one-woman monologue performed by Patty Cornell. Her character, Lisa, is a frustrated, emotionally and sexually oppressed housewife and mother in New York City, who offers startlingly frank observations and commentary on her own life and the lives of those around her. While a one-woman show with minimal staging is a unique choice for a one act festival, Cornell’s performance was effective, and while the character may not have been particularly unique, she felt like a real person with relatable inner thoughts.

“The Big Hill,” written and performed by James Macdonald and directed by Karen Rizzo, is the third piece, and also a family affair—Macdonald and Rizzo are husband and wife, and their son, Drake, accompanies his father in the performance. Another play with minimal staging, “The Big Hill” consists of the elder Macdonald reading a story into a microphone while his son reveals a series of artwork (by Susie Pak) that complements the dialogue. While Macdonald is a compelling storyteller and definitely has a lovely way with words and an impressive ability to capture your attention, I couldn’t help but feel this piece would be more suited to a podcast or radio show than the stage.

The fourth piece, “To Serve Butter,” written by Eliana Pipes and directed by Susan Franklin Tanner, is definitely the most comedic in Program A. It follows two women, a seasoned, African-American actress named Carla (Virtic Emil Brown) and a naive, young Caucasian actress named Tracy (Denah Angel) who meet at a mysterious audition for a private, celebrity-hosted event that turns out to be much more than Carla bargained for. Even with a comedic tone, it makes a surprisingly effective and relevant political statement, with pop culture references the audience clearly appreciated.

The final play in Program A is “Lizzy,” written by Roger Q. Mason and directed by Jonathan Munoz-Proulx. It features an emotional scene between Mary Todd Lincoln (Mona Lee Wylde) and Elizabeth Keckley (Cathy Diane Tomlin), her seamstress and close friend. Aside from the surprising identity of the characters, this piece ultimately overstayed its welcome and failed to say anything interesting or revelatory about a subject matter and relationship that could have been explored in a more interesting way.

Despite the flaws of the individual pieces, Program A of this festival is an eclectic evening of theater that is likely to have something for everyone. While I have not had the chance to personally check out Programs B and C, there are many more one acts to experience. Program B features “Float” by Mary F. Unser, “The Mediator” by Tom Stringer, and “Apocrypha” by Stephen Dierkes. Program C includes “David Hockney’s Couch” by Stevie Stern, “The Foolish Angel” by Garrett M. Brown, “Number 10” by Elizabeth Logun, “Tag” by Tony Foster, “Lizzie” by Jose Rivera, and “Nessun Dorma” by Keith Szarabajka.

See the calendar included in this post, or click here for a schedule of remaining performances for the festival. To purchase tickets, which are $25 for a single program or $50 for a festival pass to attend all three, click here.


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