Friday, January 13, 2012


One benefit of the Digital Age is the democratization of the arts. There are more ways than ever before for artmakers to reach an audience—bands can record their own CDs, authors can publish their own ebooks, visual artists can participate in regional Open Studios events, or show their work in online galleries. And every year, aspiring playwrights have a chance to see their work produced onstage, with live actors in front of a real audience, in the annual Eight Tens @ Eight short play festival staged by the Santa Cruz Actors' Theatre.

For this, their 17th season, ET@E Artistic Director Wilma Marcus Chandler solicited submissions from all over the country via their annual spring ten-minute playwriting contest. Chandler and her team of intrepid judges combed through the entries to select the final eight, which are now produced onstage at the Center Street Theatre with local actors, directed by such local theatrical luminaries as Maria Crush, Marcus Cato, and Daria Troxell.

The result is an evening of short, pithy, original plays well-suited to this intimate venue (the original Actors' Theatre, once upon a time), with its intense sense of community spirit. Five of this season's eight plays are comedies, two are dramas. My favorite is the one that falls between genres, "Crossing The Line," by Seth Freemn. Directed by Sarah Albertson, it's a close encounter between a high school math teacher (well-played by Scott Kravitz), a teenage vandal who calls himself "Shooter" (a persuasive Kamaxtli Perez-Granados), and the principles of logic and consequence. The dialogue is funny, the situation tense, it has a complete story arc, and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The comedies tend to be more like sketch pieces, but most have their bright moments. Perhaps the best realized, Earl Roske's "Measure of a Man," directed by Steve Brenner, a sly satire in which a lowly, 18th Century Scottish crofter (Steve Capasso) and his laird, the Colonel (a flamboyantly funny Denny Vierra) discuss the value of a library. ("The more books I have, the smarter people think I am.") Part of the fun here is watching the actors maintain their Scots accents.

"The Unwedding," by Martin Azevedo and directed by Troxell, begins with a funny premise—a divorcing couple divvying up their friends like community property—but it doesn't know how or when to make a graceful exit. Marcia Rudin's "Waiting For Wilma," directed by Joan Van Antwerp, a comedy of colliding values in an overbooked hotel room during a hurricane, also ends a little abruptly.

Diane Patterson's satirical "The Bank," also concludes with more of a whimper than a bang, although director Cato coaxes a wonderful performance out of Kendall Callaghan as a ferociously chirpy bank teller. Jaye Wolfe and Brett Karleen deliver good comic performances as a corporate honcho and a hopeful hiree in Jeffrey Gold's "Fair Shake," directed by Crush, although the comic purpose of the buzzer that keeps interrupting their interview isn't always clear enough.

Both dramatic shorts deal with love and loss. In Elyce Melmon's bittersweet "It Begins With Goodbye," directed by Bill Peters, an angry, blustery widower (Chad Davies) searches for closure with a volunteer grief counselor (MarNae Taylor). Grief is pending in Andrea Fleck Clardy's "Gay Paree," directed by Peter Gelblum, where two lifelong friends (Helene Simkin Jara and the deeply empathetic Gail Borkowski) swap raucous stories while one of them battles cancer.

All the plays look great onstage, with surprisingly detailed sets, and sophisticated lighting and sound. ET@E is community theater at its most elemental, a labor of love in which local actors, directors and tech crews get to share the magic of live theater with the public.

The production continues Thursdays through Sundays at the Center Street Theatre, through January 29. As an extra bonus, the company is also presenting The Best of the Rest, staged readings of the eight runners-up from the ten-minute playwriting contest, to be held the next two Wednesdays (January 18 and 25) at 8 pm.

Read all about the Actors' Theatre here. Click here for tickets and info.

One more thing: the evening show tomorrow night (Saturday, January 14, 8 pm) is an actor's benefit. (Shades of Vincent Crummles!) This is charming practice left over from 19th Century theatre in which all proceeds go directly to the hard-working volunteer actors who make this festival possible. (In the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens' actor/manager Crummles was afoot in the profession, it was also called a "bespeak," in that the proceeds were bespoken for a particular actor or the company of actors.) It's a chance to support live local theater and your favorite players, so get your ducats right now!

(Above, "The Great Bespeak for Miss Snevellici," from Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. Engraving by Phiz, 1838, scanned by Phillip V. Allingham. As seen on The Victorian Web.)

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