An enthusiastic ensemble of young playwrights and thespians collaborated this past week on what has become an eagerly anticipated annual event: The “Evening of New Plays,” from Aside Productions. Greeting the crowd from the stage of Ashbury Hall in Woodlands United Methodist Church were Aside directors, James Canfield* (the group’s founder), and Diane Goldsmith*. They proudly declared their company, “The most edgiest theatre in Houston.” Then it was on to this latest edition of original plays, written by area high school and college students, and performed on essentially a bare stage with little or no scenery.
First up was Glass Houses by Tommy Wates. Directed by Andrew J. Rogers*, and featuring Santiago Delgado*, Keenan Hurley, John Watkins*, Jessica Canfield* and Vic Shuttee, the play has a unique point of view as the actors discover they are being created by the writer and all begin challenging one another as part of the piece. (This play gently tips its hat to the Woody Allen film, Purple Rose of Cairo, in which a character in the movie takes on life, and descends from the screen). Mr. Wates characters find themselves in rapidly changing situations at the hands of the writer. An over-the-top love scene is so teary-eyed and desperate it fulfilled the author’s intention to be hilarious. And speaking of hilarious, Mr. Watkins could put the audience in stitches just by walking across the stage while applying Chapstick. Farcical segments had hints of the kind of zany “Saturday Night Live” nuttiness that made last year’s production of “The Boss” such fun. One issue that would pervade the plays of the evening was occasional poor voice projection from various players who were sometimes rushing their lines or difficult to hear. I recall this also being an issue in last year’s productions. Mr. Delgado, for example, has great stage presence and a wonderfully resonant, rich deep voice, but it does not carry well when in soft-spoken mode. Many of the actors could benefit from high school or college courses in speech or voice projection.
Directed by Mr. Canfield and Miss Goldsmith, Adam Sweeney’s new play, Parallel Lies, was another work with an interesting twist. Two young couples are played by Cecily Breaux* and Mr. Delgado, along with Steven Lanier and Miss Canfield. Standing on opposite sides of the stage, these two couples alternately evolve relationships through dialogue that includes feuds, deception, break-ups, and a sudden surprise ending, all within the few minutes of a very short play.
The Powers That Are is a new play by Noel Yuri-Bermudez*, previously known for his comic flair as an actor in the title role of last season’s aforementioned “The Boss.” Directed here by Tyler Lewis*, the cast included Jonathan Foster, Toni Lane Casserly, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Shuttee, Shelby Escamilla*, Melissa Flower, and the very funny Mr. Watkins who steals the show as the fun-loving Captain of a Love Boat-style cruise ship designed for singles who are hoping to “hook up” while on vacation. The fun includes lots of absurd flirtations, a bit of Shakespearean flair, and even an amorous elderly couple aided by a walker and Viagra. Some of this was overlong and in need of an editor’s knife, as the cast sometimes seemed to project a bit of “Look at us and how much fun we are having here.” But pop music seasoned the scene changes, and when the captain asked, “Who’s having fun?” it looked like everyone was, as the full cast closed the piece with a well-choreographed and snappy disco version of the song “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.”
In the tradition of “saving the best for last,” we come now to Katlin Newman’s chilling new play, Predicament, skillfully directed by Mr. Canfield and Miss Goldsmith. Miss Breaux plays a confused high school girl whose father (Jonathan Foster) is an explosive and unpredictably abusive man who can be tender with wife (Miss Escamilla) and daughter one minute, and savagely vicious and cruel the next. He seems to have brief lucid moments realizing he is out of control, but that is not enough to sustain the dysfunctional family he has created. Foster is both frightening and riveting in his sensational performance. Escamilla’s tender attempts to understand him and keep the family together are beautifully portrayed, while Breaux breaks our hearts as a young woman so deeply troubled by her father’s rejection that she has turned to self-mutilation. This was truly powerful theatre and a highlight of the evening. I found myself thinking back to a line from the first play of the night, Glass Houses: “People don’t care about originality. They just want to be entertained.” Certainly this night of very original theatre gave the lie to that argument.
*Indicates member of the Aside Resident Company
Aside Productions has announced that its coming season will include the popular contemporary musical, Altar Boyz, and the Vietnam-era drama, A Piece of My Heart. Stay tuned for details.
(The Courier 8.16.09)