OC Centric: All the County's a Stage
Shakespeare may have been correct in that there is nothing new under the sun, but he left out an important caveat: except for every single moment.
So, while the four scripts that are part of the fourth-annual OC Centric new play festival (the only one of its kind for playwrights with OC connections) may deal with themes and issues that are familiar—the definition of art, letting go and moving on, revenge, guilt and love—each is framed in a singular way. And it's that, not waiting for the next breakout playwright to erupt or a play that encapsulates the angst or ennui of the contemporary human condition, that makes new plays so important.
"Old and familiar plays give the theater a plethora of laughter, tears, joys and sorrows, and new plays create new traditions of experiencing these emotional states of being," says Tamiko Washington, the festival's artistic director and a theater professor at Chapman University. "This is why the significance of new plays needs to have a voice in contemporary theater, [as well as] why playwrights must see their work done in real time. Supporting and producing new works provides an arena of innovation involving the continuation of stories that have not yet been told [or] experienced."
Washington came up with the concept four years ago and reached out to Eric Eberwein, the director of the Orange County Playwrights Alliance; he now serves as co-producer. Submissions of original one-acts and full-length plays have increased each year, from 25 in 2011 to 42 this year.
"There are no thematic similarities between the plays that we chose for this year's festival," Washington says. "The goal is to choose the best new plays that are stage-ready, which means they are ready to be fully produced due to the quality of the writing, [including] plot, story and character development."
But while each play may address certain concerns, a reading of them (the festival doesn't begin until this weekend) finds one commonality: characters enmeshed in crisis.
The protagonist in The Rothko, a one-act by Huntington Beach's Nicholas Thurkettle, finds himself under interrogation for kicking a priceless painting in a museum. Utterly unapologetic but also obviously a lover of art, the character faces a lifetime ban from the museum at best, criminal charges at worst. But in the witty exchanges between he and his questioners, the notion of what is art and who that art actually belongs to after it leaves the artist's studio and becomes public is examined.
The crisis in the other one-act, Saint or Sinner by Yorba Linda's Lew Riley, is a bit more lightweight. A man on the verge of achieving one of the most venal, yet downright seductive sexual conquests imaginable discovers that rarely does something that sounds that good turn out to be so. Compared to the two darker full-length plays, Riley's adds some spirited comic relief.
Everyone is in crisis in the most disturbing of the four plays: Dana Point writer Kerry Kazmierowicztrimm's Gray People. Three unsavory characters wait in an isolated forest for a mysterious cargo to be dropped off. What that cargo is and what their roles are slowly unwind, and while it takes a few very dark and vicious turns, Kazmierowicztrimm's script is more of an absorbing character study of very different people who share a harrowing bond. He does an excellent job of capturing the complex backstories of these troubling characters in relatively few pages, something less-talented playwrights have problems with in plays that are twice as long.
Crisis also afflicts the characters in Fullerton writer Erica Bennett's Bender. Ruby is a country singer of no marginal talent who yearns to break free from her limiting southern town and abusive husband. Her best friend, Wanda, is dealing with cancer. Their younger friend, Sundry, has four kids and another on the way, and the men who surround them have issues of their own. This is the most complicated of the four plays in terms of plot, time and interaction, and Bennett does a solid job capturing both the idiosyncrasies of her characters through sparking dialogue, as well as their unmistakable idea that it is less geography that ties people to a place than blood.
Unlike staged readings, during which actors hold their scripts and sit in chairs or are rudimentarily blocked, these are all full-on productions, brought to fruition by directors and an ensemble of actors ranging from veterans of OC storefront theater to fresh faces pulled from local colleges, particularly Chapman. At a time when new plays from local playwrights are harder to find on local stages than a kept promise on the campaign trail, OC Centric merits high marks for spurring local writers to write, as well as providing an opportunity to see their words elevated from their computer monitors to three-dimensional life.
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