It would be fair to say it’s a great time to be practicing theater – acting, writing, directing, any aspect if it – in Louisville.
Fair, but not entirely up-to-date.
It has been a good time for a long time, and it keeps getting better. Multiple openings every week, innumerable shows to audition for, more opportunities for local writers to see their work staged. And in the case of The Bard’s Town, all this and a place in which to put it.
In only its second year, the performance space/pub and grub has become a cornerstone of an artistically vibrant community whose one major shortcoming is a sore lack of performance spaces. The added benefit is the focus Executive Director Doug Schutte and Artistic Director Scot Atkinson give to local work. Twelve of the fourteen new plays they will stage in 2012 are by Kentucky playwrights. And of the 100 Commonwealth-generated submissions for their second annual ten-minute play festival, they have compiled and produced an exceptionally enjoyable evening of new theater.
Schutte plays host for the evening with an affable, Conan O’Brien-like quality and links the plays together quite well. He also appears in the supporting role of Dr. Bob Kane (if you get that reference, you can already see where this is going) in the opening piece, “Knightstalker and Canary,” written and directed by local actor Ben Gierhart. Dr. Kane is psychoanalyst to Canary, a superhero sidekick with a distinctive red and yellow color scheme who is having issues stepping out of the shadow of his dark-hued, gravel-voiced mentor. When Knightstalker shows up at the doctor’s office, hilarity ensues…for the most part.
Gierhart couches the style of the piece in the archly serious yet tits-adorned style of Adam West-era “Batman.” What made that style so funny is the utter seriousness of the caped crusaders amid the lunacy surrounding them. Here, there is not quite enough conviction in the characters, and some overly self-conscious attempts to play for laughs keeps the piece from being as funny as it should be. But JP Lebangood and Colby Ballowe work well off each other and make this lighthearted look at some issues between the dynamic duo we’ve all thought about for a long time (They sharea bed? Really!?!) highly enjoyable overall.
Patrick Wensink’s “A Falling Piano with Your Name on It” is a clever little character piece about two detectives, one of whom has two big secrets to tell the other. Wensick’s dialogue is musical and captures well the generational difference between a grizzled, seen-it-all cop and his young partner. Director Brian Walker keeps the pace moving and the tension building to the big reveal, and Sean Childress and Eric Welch exhibit a great natural chemistry that brings the climax home quite effectively.
Doug Schutte’s “Stained Glass” is a character piece of a different sort. In it, a man faces cold feet on his wedding day with help from a best man who is caught in a different marital crisis. This is an incredibly mature and informed piece, well-staged by director Amos Driesbach. Colby Ballowe is effectively high-strung and well balanced by Corey Music, a talented comedic actor, who does a wonderful job revealing the wounded core of his character without a hint of melodrama. Very real, very good. And I particularly enjoyed the ending, well-crafted by Schutte, that keeps the play from straying too close to sentimentality.
April Singer and Ryan Watson in Gay Encounters of the Third Kind. Photo by Doug Schutte.
Nancy Gall-Clayton’s “Aphrodite in the ER” is exactly what it says it is: a Greek goddess in labor caught in the maddening throes of the American health care system. JP Lebangood turns in great character work as the nebbish bureaucrat Bud; and April Singer goes for broke as Aphrodite, attempting to retain her regal majesty while squeezing a baby out. Clever jibes at the mythological material and performers enjoying the material make this a fun end to Act One.
Act Two opens with a look at what has got to be foremost among first world problems in Andy Epstein’s clever and insightful “Gay Encounters of the Third Kind.” In an extended monologue, Ben (Ryan Watson) guides us through the great crisis of his life: he’s not gay, but everyone thinks he is. Ben explores the history of his problem, shows us how it affects every aspect of his life, and finally arrives at how he might use it to his advantage. As Ben, Ryan Watson fills the stage with his endearing, exasperated presence. Yet his eyes call to mind Jim Parsons: penetrating, accusatory and put-upon, keeping us just distant enough to be able to laugh uproariously at his plight. John Scheker and April Singer do excellent work as different men and women in Ben’s life who compound his problem.
From here, Ten-Tucky steps into the quirky and surreal with Erin Keane’s “Sweet Virginia.” Hank (Sean Childress) is headed to Central America for three weeks and is leaving Kelly (Beth Tarantella Burrell) to look after his house…and his pets – Fluffernutter and Don Quixote (Julane Havens and Brian Hinds). I don’t want to spoil what exactly Fluffernutter and Don Quixote are, other than to say they’re nasty, they have a fresh litter, and they’re existentially tormented. Keane’s writing is hip and poetic, sometimes almost a little too much. But director Greg Maupin and the cast perfectly bring to life Keane’s ideas about how tempting and elusive freedom can be for man and beast alike.
Also in the absurdist vein is Brian Walker’s “Finn’s Motel” about a young man searching for purpose in his life at a hotel that mysteriously shares his name. What he finds there, I don’t want to spoil either. Suffice to say it (it being played by Corey Music) is a surprise, it may hold Finn’s answers, and it is incredibly articulate about how much it wants to have sex with Finn (Ryan Watson) and his companion (Megan Brown). “Finn” and “Sweet Virginia” share a quality in that they both end on cliffhangers. “Sweet Virginia” feels like a more complete journey for the characters; you get the idea what will happen next. “Finn” doesn’t quite resolve its protagonist’s quest, which is a bit frustrating (in a good way, I think: I really wanted to know what happens next). But both Walker and Keane deserve a special mention for sheer audacity of imagination.
The festival finale is a touching meditation on competition in Trish Ayers’ “Judging Quilts.” Julane Havens, Hallie Dizdarevic and Meg Caudill embody three quilts on the international quilt competition circuit (there’s a show circuit for everything, right?). Caudill is the take-no-prisoners pageant queen, Dizdarevic the serious-but-fair-playing pro, and Havens the wide-eyed newcomer who is competing for more than just show. The trio defines their characters crisply, and Ayers’ use of something as traditional and personal as a quilt perfectly drives home the point that value doesn’t come from a blue ribbon. A well-crafted, well-directed (by Melinda Crecelius) play – with a killer closing line – that will leave you positively charmed.
Doug Schutte says in his festival introduction that the theme of the show is “celebration.” With so many talented actors, writers and directors taking part, he’s exactly right. It’s a celebration you should get in on. Bravo, Bard’s Town!
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner