John Chatterton’s Short Play Lab at the Roy Arias Studios(1) advertises itself as “a shotgun blast of new dramatic material, always keeping you off balance.” While the material was new and some of it was indeed dramatic, I’m not sure if the balance being struck was intended to hit in the way it did. Some plays tapped a nerve, others beat around the bush, and some didn’t make much sense at all.
The shows in program-A which I was there to see included “It’s Terrible What We Do for Love,” by Andrew Heinze, “Two Girls Waiting” by Leah Benavides and Michael Hirstreet (2), “Lost Wisdom,” by Shelia Mart, “No One You Know,” by Aren Haun, “A Question for Antigone,” by Michele Farbman, and “The Quarter,” by Dr. Jeff Dailey. For this piece I will only be talking about the plays and the writing. The actors I’m sure are all fine but with this short play lab format the performers are working with fresh material which could fly or could flop.
As described in the playbill, the shows also only had the afternoon of the first show’s evening to rehearse in the space. I am a pretty big believer in having more time to rehearse to pull the best from your performers. Here was my impression.
“It’s Terrible What We Do For Love,” dealt with real issues in a hyper-real sense. A keeper of a donor list is trying to bribe this man whose wife is dying and needs a liver. The list keeper says to the man that she will bump his wife’s name to the top of the list if he will be intimate with her for one day a week for nine months. The list keeper is trying to woo this courtly gent into falling in love with her. I don’t know if I bought the whole premise and the resolution rang a little hollow. I wish the both characters would have gotten a little more worked up at the situation and raised the stakes a little more. The text felt very clinical.
“Two Girls Waiting,” was a good show which missed it’s mark in spots. The situation is real enough; two high school aged teen girls in a planned parenthood clinic. One girl is Latina and very pregnant, the other girl is a southern blonde and just in ‘for some tests.’ There is only one kind of test you go to planned parenthood for. These two girls have a lot of history which is apparent from the get-go. Blondie though felt it necessary to broadcast the Latina princess’s news of her pregnancy to the whole student body. What happened to rumor like ‘who kissed whom at the dance?’ There are pretty big stakes for these estranged friends. I had a problem with the resolution again, from how the two girls were assumed to have dealt with these pregnancies to the final move of the southern character. This is a script though which could benefit from further development and could be striking in longer form. That’s really where this script fell short. In a show like MTV’s “16 & Pregnant,” you are allowed to see the same characters from week to week working it out. This subject matter is dynamite for the stage but to encapsulate it into such a shortened form makes the whole situation feel rushed. A suggestion for the writers, we don’t always turn the other cheek.
“Lost Wisdom,” was whacky and was about a spaceship and time travel and intra-stellar docking and breathing and hostile alien takeovers. How the play ended though was a slap in the face to the medical and dental community (or deserves a Dateline special. Call Chris Hansen.)
“No One You Know,” felt like it should be a Jeff Denton Facebook Fan Page. Who is Jeff Denton, you ask? Well it’s no one you know (or, at least, no one my wife or I knew). The plot of the play involves a philandering girlfriend, her boyfriend who’s let himself go, a bathroom at a bar, and the geeky-writer the philandering girl has a one-off with. Or maybe Jeff Denton. There’s a thing in dramatic literature, in all storytelling, called the story arc. Playwrights are supposed to pay attention to story arc a lot more than other writers because once you’ve lost an audience in a theatre, they’re gone. It’s not like when people go to the movies to see Brad Pitt and will let the story slide or from a novel of a favorite author so they’ll let the story take its time to spill out. That said, this play felt more like an hourglass with all the drama happening in the middle, the beginning and the end felt like total artifice.
“A Question for Antigone,” was written and acted in by the same person so she’s had more time with the material. I have to say that I’m not as schooled in the classics as I should be. My wife is though. I’m familiar with Antigone (I was board-op for my professor’s similarly misguided musical adaptation of the play in college) but that was 10 years ago and I feel like this playwright is way too close with Antigone. The read she took from the play was not at all what I recall of Antigone and her brother. This sometimes happens when someone is so close with material and has read into the work too deeply. Antigone was not Oedipus.
“The Quarter,” was the final play in the series and actually had a nice moment towards the end. Right before the guy (who acknowledged that he can’t sing) started singing. Just by stating ‘I can’t sing’ doesn’t give you the license to sing and keep singing. Whether or not the actor can actually sing or he just struck an off-note for the role, that fact, I thought always went without saying. That said, this play could definitely be a much larger piece and is a lovely place to start a full story. But in its truncated form, The Quarter gets maybe 75% of the way there.
John Chatterton’s Short Play Lab offers playwrights and audience members something you don’t always get to see in live theatre. New work from up-and-coming writers in its earliest stages. All of this work wasn’t these writers’ strongest efforts but the Short Play Lab is a work in progress, so keep an eye on these writers work in the future.