New Plays Push Boundaries at STAGESTheater
A lusty chorus of huzzahs to STAGES Theatre! The county's longest-running storefront (going on 20-plus years) has chosen two new, or relatively unfamiliar, plays to local audiences, to begin 2015. And why should you give a shit? Well, new plays mean new voices, new stories. And while the umpeenth production of Dial M for Murder or the Pirates of Penzance might be great for a theater's bottom-line, it does absolutely nothing to grow the medium, or to suggest why people who aren't already into it should care in the slightest.
And while neither of these two plays are perfect--one feels a touch under cooked, the other a bit over written--they are both fresh takes on enduring subjects: the abuse of centralized authority, and the angst associated with fitting in.
Of the two playwrights, Jason Wells, who penned The North Plan has the bigger profile, since two of his plays have been done at Chicago's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre. The North Plan debuted in 2010 at the Portland Center Stage. It's a dark comedy that, while weighing in one some heavy themes--such as the eradication of civil liberties in the wake of a mysterious coup of the U.S. government--is really more about the laughs than the dark. Though the play's fictitious goings-on certainly have some grounding in reality (especially for the Alex Jones' crowd), the play's events are so ludicrous and the second act so wobbly that no one but the dumbest conspiracy nut would think this a cautionary tale. But it is funny.
Amber Scott is a spitfire as Tanya Shepke, a trash-talking hick from the Ozarks in the local jail after trying to self-report herself for drunk driving. She's joined by Shonda (Tawney Lewis), a non-law enforcement jailer, and Carlton (Greg Baine) who claims to be a U.S. State Department employee with a computer file of thousands of Americans who will soon be rounded up by the gummint and interned in camps.
The local chief (an effectiveTracy Marquis) is kind of sympathetic to Carlton's plight, but he's been told by the Department of Homeland Security to keep him tight until two officers show up. And that happens at the beginning of the second act. It's also when the wheels of Wells' play come off, the play turning into a lightweight 24 with Bad Cop (Steven Sullivan) and Hapless Cop (Wade Williamson) trying to beat the truth out of Carlton. Again, while any rational American should be obviously concerned with electronic surveillance, America the Police State, and abuse of power at all levels, The North Plan doesn't add to the conversation as much as shutter it. It's too simplistic and the plot too ludicrous to really invest in.
OC-based Hero Carlisle's Five Knaves for Breakfast is a much different kettle of herring. Basically, he's taken the plot of The Breakfast Club but set it in a detention hall where everyone speaks in lofty Elizabethan language. But rather than just pull actual Shakespeare dialogue and shoe-horn it into a play, Carlisle has invented his own. And his real writing talent on display--and his ability to make these stereotypical characters such as the jock, the bad boy and the geek feel real-- is a solid achievement. The play feels a little long and that isn't helped by the lighting design, which is more conducive to slumber, but there's enough in the writing--and the spirited performances from the seven-member cast--to keep one engaged.
Neither playwright is a dummy. They've both crafted works that aren't pedestrian, mediocre diary-entries designed, one would suspect, of showing how deeply they feel or how goddamn special they are. They deal with concerns beyond their own lives.
And those are good, and welcome, things.New plays, in and of themselves, don't mean a thing unless they chart new territory. Both of these do, even if it's land that could be more efficiently explored.
STAGESTheatre, 400 E. Commonweath, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. The North Plan, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun 2 p.m. Thru Feb. 22.$18-$20; Five Knaves for Breakfast, Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m.; Trut Feb. 21. www. stagesoc.org.
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