Theater is only as relevant and contemporary as the new plays it produces, which may be one reason why Orange County theater suffers from bipolar disorder.
On the manic end of the spectrum is South Coast Repertory, an internationally acclaimed foundry of new plays and play development. On the depressing side is nearly everything else. While storefronts such as STAGEStheatre and the now-defunct Hunger Artists Theatre Co. built themselves, in large part, on the shoulders—broad or weak—of new plays by local writers, that kind of work these days is seen as rarely as the downtown Los Angeles skyline from Fullerton's Sunny Hills: It happens, but it's always startling to see it.
Which makes the third year of "OC-centric," a summer festival of new plays by local writers at Chapman University, such a welcome sight. These aren't readings, staged or otherwise. They are full-fledged productions, opportunities for the county's playwrights to see their work with flesh and bones for the first time, as well as for audiences to watch a new play slither from the womb and walk on its own feet.
"OC-centric" at Chapman University's Moulton Center Studio Theatre, 300 E. Palm Ave., Orange, (714) 902-5716; www.occentric.weebly.com. The God-Shaped Hole, Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Skirt, Thurs.-Fri., Aug. 22-23, 8 p.m. One-acts, Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $15-$20.
This year, co-producers Eric Eberwein and Tamiko Washington chose two one-acts and two full productions from several dozen submissions. The results show why new plays are a tough sell. None of the three shows witnessed last Sunday by these eyes seems fully mature. To channel that erudite theater critic Goldilocks, each seemed either too warm (as in unfocused, with too much going on) or too cold (thin and underdeveloped). Yet it also shows why new plays are so just right: each of the three writers has created something new, explored uncharted territory and possesses a singular voice that, given more encouragement like this, could very well blossom into a powerful one.
Skirt by Irvine resident Julie Tosh is one of the two full-length plays in this year's festival (Orange resident Abbe Levine's The God-Shaped Hole is the other). Bethany (a strong Jinny Ryann) is a 15-year-old high-school student in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Her biology classroom is run with an iron fist by an overbearing teacher (Jordan Goodsell, who looks far too young for a 34-year-old teacher). Bethany's next-door neighbor, Michael (a believable Joseph Santos), is a student teacher who also happens to be the former best friend of her brother, Del (a riveting Patrick Peterson), whose recent car injury has left him brain damaged and confined to a wheelchair.
When the bright, but obviously conflicted, Bethany shows up in class wearing a skirt far shorter than the school's guidelines mandate—on the same day that she tells Michael her brother is returning from the hospital—ghosts are dredged up and hormones spike. There is a great deal of smart, crisp and engaging writing here, but for a play that skirts so many uncomfortable issues—from child molestation to suicide—there's a lack of dramatic urgency. Things meander too long before the Big Reveal comes, and the resolution seems far too tidy. The result is akin to a play that has something vital to say, but gets in its own way too often.
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The most interesting stylistic play of the three is former Stanton resident Travis Snyder-Eaton's one-act The Sound of Silence. Two of its four scenes are done in pantomime; the first, in particular, is hilarious: a Keystone Cop-like affair featuring adept physical agility. Set in 1940 Los Angeles, the play relates the story of a starry-eyed Robert Graham (an excellent Vince Dalba), who arrives in Hollywood with big dreams and a big suitcase, and the starry-eyed aspiring actress he meets (the equally excellent Laura Zenoni). The template isn't groundbreaking: World War II-era, studio-manufactured star-crossed romance. But the way Snyder-Eaton relays the story is inventive and crafted exquisitely well. The two wordless scenes are quasi-mirror images of the other, but where the first is exuberantly over the top, the second is far more somber; without saying an actual word, Snyder-Eaton insightfully portrays the difference between youthful infatuation and the more pragmatic reality of love in the wake of loss. However, much as with Skirt, the climax falls flat as things seem too conveniently tied up. (Kudos also to pianist Eleanor Nunez, who drives the gleeful first scene with her impeccable ivory-tinkling.)
Irvine's Andrea Sloan Pink contributes the second one-act, Les Hollywood Hills. It's a brisk 30-minute affair about a decadent Hollywood film director (a wonderfully curmudgeonly yet oddly sympathetic Joe Parrish) counting off the pills until his death and the young film student (a fiery Katrina Klein) hired to be his caretaker, confidante and whipping post. Pink's characters are so engaging, her dialogue so crackling, and her examination of the need for artists to plumb the darkest and brightest manifestations of human behavior so earnest that one wishes the prodcution was a fleshed-out, full-length play.
While these three plays never completely satisfy, that's not the point. In an era when theater is marginalized at best, ignored at worst, Eberwein and Washington are taking what legendary director/producer Margo Jones called "a violent stand" on aggressively searching out new plays from local playwrights. Let's hope all of OC's theater companies think seriously about hoisting the same banner.