Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Also see Rob's review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The eight one-act plays that compose this year's Benchwarmers offeringpieces written around a single set piece, a park bench (which can also be utilized in other non-al fresco ways)give us a bright window into the fertile minds and hearts of some of our state's best writers for the stage, both veterans and rookies alike.
For their 2018 installment, Santa Fe Playhouse is trying a different approach to these pieces; rather than serving up a theatrical gallimaufry of divergent directorial concepts and visions, a single director, Hamilton Turner, has been handed the artistic reins to all eight plays. He has, as a result, mapped out a fluid and cohesive journey through a theatrical landscape of both the concrete and naturalistic, the stylized and fantastic. The unifying element lies in the truth of the characters and the emotionally riveting stories they embody and conveysomething the talented Mr. Turner has done a splendid job of extracting. Turner gives shape to these snatches of human connection, which fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, leaving the audience feeling they have watched a relatively seamless work of multiple components, each touching a different emotion on the human spectrum.
Assessing eight different plays in a single review is a tricky challenge, since it would be unfair to rank them in accordance with my own idiosyncratic terms of appreciation. At the same time, there are, for me, aspects to each that I think are objectively strong and worth commending, both for the scripts from which they are launched and for the performances of the eight members of the show's acting ensemble (something else new to this festival).
Alix Hudson's Incarnadineset on a train platform as four passengers await passagehas some of the sharpest and funniest writing of this year's collection, Hudson's words empowered by drolly fun characterizations, thanks to the fine comic timing of Marguerite Louise Scott, Cindy Coulter, Amanda Cazares, and Nicholas Coffey (the character chemistry of the latter two making for some especially hilarious moments). Scott gives us a truly stand-out moment of her own in her wildly peripatetic monologue that brilliantly puts the "scatter" in "scatterbrained," and in keeping with a recurring transportation theme, can be best characterized as a soliloquizing runaway mine train.
There is delicate, poignant writing evident in Bronwen Denton-Davis's The Bench, about a young woman making final preparations in a non-traditional memorial park. Cazares shines here as well, as does Shawn Wayne King as a sympathetic memorial park employee.
Death is a theme explored in several of the other one-acts as well. Robert Benjamin's Broken Off gives us an older man on a plane with a laptop that won't power down. Revealed through the course of the play is his need to be with a family member who has made the choice to power down her own life. The interaction between Don Converse as James, the passenger, and Cindy Coulter as Lisa, the harried by-the-book flight attendant, swings from comic to tragic with supersonic speed.
The Explaining Room, a wonderfully written comedy by Helen Rynaski, shows us death in the rearview mirror, as it places us in the anteroom of the After Life, where two women, nicely played by Patti O'Berg and Veronica Everett, are rudely deposited, the two unfortunately linked by one of the characters' fatal obsession with texting while driving.
In John Cullinan's carefully crafted Julian Box, Everett and Coffey play former lovers who must tie up loose ends with the help of a modern-day rag picker: a self-admitted con woman who may or may not be all that she seems. It's a perfectly juicy role for the very versatile Ms. Scott.
The Garden Stalker, by mother-and-daughter writing team Janyth and Paula Fell, is a sly comic romp about nefarious community garden goings-on instigated by a Machiavellian conniver by the name of Constance, played by O'Berg. King and Everett keep this one grounded in the fertilized dirt, with O'Berg delivering the best lines.
In Michael Burgan's One More Coffee, an older couple come to terms with the sudden impact that sexual intimacy has on their friendshipa heretofore comfortable relationship that hovers somewhere between platonia and deep, but unsexualized, affection. Kita Mehaffy's That's Five, set in a train station, give us two human trains passing in the metaphoric night, each managing fears that define their lives and direct their life journeys. Both pieces, the first with Scott and Converse, the second with Cazares and King, present human interaction in its most raw and aching forms.
For a show built largely around various realizations of a single piece of furniture, Jeremy Plant doesn't skimp on all the necessary accouterments to coloring in all these variegated moments. Annie Z. Liu's lighting design and Jaye Oliver's costume design set the proper moods and tonalities through imaginative use of color and light.
As a side comment, I'd like to commend Playhouse artistic director Vaughn Irving and the theater's artistic board for their decision to include pieces that aren't hampered by the popular (and, I feel, as a playwright) largely constraining ten minute-time limit. In the old days, one-act plays could be as long as they needed to be, but our present-day national mania for ten minute plays has left a good many twelve- and sixteen- and twenty-minute one acts on the sidelines. We're all fortunate that each of these wonderful pieces of various lengths were allowed to shine upon the Santa Fe Playhouse stage.
Benchwarmers, through October 14, 2018, at the Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 East De Vargas Street, Santa Fe NM. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Information at www.santafeplayhouse.org or 505-988-4262. The running time is around two hours, with one intermission.