San Antonio Playwrights’ annual PlayFest returned to the Cellar Theater this month, featuring faces old and new. With a theme similar to last year’s Viva Las Vegas, PlayFest 2009: New Orleans Beat showcases seven new 10-minute works by local playwrights who spin stories related to the Crescent City.
Each writer incorporated elements from a grab bag of requirements, but beyond the common constraints, the plays varied enough to include stories of love, survival, the supernatural, and science fiction.
Act One features four plays grounded in human emotion. Ranging from despair to exaltation, the first half kicks off with veteran Sheila Rinear’s hilariously biting “For Mal to Hide,” directed by David Rinear. The titular pun is just the beginning of the verbal twists and double entendres in this smart and ruthless story of a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The most topical of the bunch, “For Mal to Hide” tells the tale of a girl (Madi Goff) and her Cajun father (Current theater critic Kyle Gillette) and grandfather living in FEMA housing on little more than high spirits, Cheerios, and gramp’s Social-Security check. When a suspicious lady with a clipboard (Dora Peña) starts poking around the trailer park, the family goes to comical (if misguided) lengths to avoid being uprooted once again.
Many of the evening’s pieces delivered flawlessly treated plot surprises, and Lindsey Van de Kirk’s tender and harrowing “Ten Minutes Later” (directed by Chelsea Fry) was no exception. The tone turns introspective when a childless couple visits an unwed mother-to-be (Consuela Vela) who is a promising adoption prospect. The three actors bring power to the stage in this successful story of hope. Rich with subtext, the brief encounter exposes the couple’s (played by Heather Kelley and Jason Vela) strained relationship.
Next on the bill is “The Naked Dance” by Rebecca Burroughs. Directed by Chelsea Fry, the play shows childhood acquaintances Liliana (Fry) and Boots (Alan D. Utley) reunited by a wedding after nearly a decade. In a raw look at the fantasies of romance, Utley and Fry ooze playfulness and naïveté, making “The Naked Dance” an unnerving voyeuristic venture.
What would a New Orleans show be without a story about the morning after Fat Tuesday? Two “dudes” from Dallas wait for their return flight in a local pub, recounting last night’s capers. The duo (played with boyish wit by Rob Barron and John Rohm) have the cell-phone photos to prove their claims in James Venhaus’ “Concourse ‘E’.” But getting out of the Big Easy isn’t easy at all. When Marie (the frenetic comic Shanti Suttin), a waitress allegedly descended from renowned voodoo master Marie Laveau, turns on her charms, it’s her turn to put the unsuspecting tourists in their places.
PlayFest’s second half ventures into magical realism and the surreal. Suttin returns to make a grand transformation as a concerned physician in “Lifetime of Lifetimes,” directed by Matthew Byron Cassi. Antoinette Winstead’s play takes us to the home of the dying Caleb (Barron), where disease has left him discouraged, flippant, and drunk. When Jeanine visits under dire circumstances, the two unearth honest feelings in thoroughly unexpected ways. A few sound-system imbalances obscured the otherwise intense dialogue, but the mood was still palpable. “Lifetime” is yet another instance in which the playwright wielded the element of surprise with great skill, leaving the audience pepped and downright entertained.
Writer Melissa Marlowe follows the energy with “Voodoo,” a lively snapshot of Sarah and Jim’s night before Mardi Gras. Played with chemistry by Rebecca DesRochers and David Robb, the lovebirds are woken by Sarah’s frantic realization that she’s forgotten to do something of great consequence — only she won’t say what. Together Robb and DesRochers are animated and unpretentious in what amounts to a sweet, feel-good story. “Voodoo” doesn’t push the envelope as much as other works on the bill, but committed acting and strong direction make it a success.
PlayFest closes with an off-the-wall play by returning playwright Modrea Mitchell-Reichert. “The Out-of-Towners” are three extraterrestrials who’ve landed in the thick of Mardi Gras debauchery. Directed by Kathleen Lovejoy, the trio inspects its surroundings with robotic literality. This fish-out-of-water story is quirky, but misses an opportunity to use the outsiders’ observations for any greater purpose. Regardless, the Martians (played by Joanne Cabrera, David Clingan, and Consuela Vela) won me over with physical humor and fresh alien mannerisms.
San Antonio playwrights prove real chops in this year’s annual PlayFest. Overflowing with originality and consistency, the showcase features seven formidable names to watch on the San Antonio scene. •
SAT Playwrights PlayFest
8pm Jan 15-17
The Cellar Theatre
San Pedro Playhouse
800 W. Ashby