Some 450 years after his death, William Shakespeare still won’t shut up. Case in point: Two new plays currently receiving their debut productions in Orange County wouldn’t exist but for Shakespearean inspiration.
Darren Andrew Nash’s Allegory of the Cave, part of the eighth-annual OC-Centric new-play festival, leans on the literary spirit of Shakespeare’s ill-fated Ophelia from Hamlet, while John Reed’s All the World’s a Grave, a tragedy written in Shakespearean language, combines elements of Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. (For more on Reed’s play, which closes this weekend at STAGEStheatre, keep an eye on this website.)
Along with Nash’s full-length piece, OC-Centric includes three one-acts, all of which explore romantic relationships, albeit far differently. James Colgan’s The Mulberry Bush is the most realistic and simplistic of the three—yet it’s also the most emotionally compelling. Two people, both of whom have suffered their own slings and arrows on the battlefields of love, are at a critical juncture in their six-month romance. That isn’t exactly new ground, and Colgan’s reliance on flashbacks often hinders the narrative’s forward thrust, making it difficult to care whether the union will last. But he’s well on his way (few plays in their first production are ready to be etched in stone; hell, many times, it’s after the first run when the playwright’s real work begins) to crafting two very believable, empathetic characters who, like so many of us, have no fucking clue how to successfully navigate the ebb and flow of the human heart. And that makes Colgan’s play, while possessing less gravitas than the others, also the most resonant, a reminder that the most effective stories are sometimes the ones that don’t feel as if they’re working too hard to unfold.
Cambria Demin’s A Girl Smiles in the Arctic is the most developed, as it won Best New Play at this year’s Act One: One Act Festival. It’s also the most creative, fanciful and bizarre: Justin Bieber (yes, that Justin Bieber) and an Inuit woman from a small village in the Arctic Circle meet every night, apparently via the astral plane, after each falls asleep. They have fallen in love, but the romance is strained to say the least. Though absurd, there is something in Denim’s writing (call it the X factor that differentiates a writer from someone who writes; yes, that sounds elitist, and it is—but it’s also the truth) that makes this compact, deceptively beguiling play rise above its inherent weirdness. It doesn’t feel like a novel idea to be introduced, then tossed off in the truncated one-act structure. Denim seems to realize that a one-act doesn’t have to be a limitation to a writer; it’s also an opportunity to say more with less. That Denim’s piece does that is no small feat.
The same can’t be said for Buddy Farmer’s Joey & Mare. While it really doesn’t say anything, it’s also not concerned with being more than a short, funny situation comedy set “many years ago” involving a certain carpenter and his virgin wife who tells him she’s pregnant. Many one-acts feel as if someone gets an interesting idea and wants to actualize it onstage, unconcerned with fully exploring it. Farmer’s idea, apparently, was to stage a small slice of life between two ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. There is no pretense, no need to make it other than what it is. Which is funny. Again, no small feat.
Which leads us to Nash’s disturbing examination of a female college student with obvious mental issues who wakes up in a psychiatric ward after a breakdown. It’s the most ambitious of the four plays in terms of story, heightened dramatic stakes and Big Ideas. It’s also the most problematic. Nash is obviously very well-read and smart, and this is a very intelligent play, from the title’s Platonic allusion and asides to Noam Chomsky and Michael Foucault, to the lively, articulate arguments between doctors and bright college students on everything from the merits of Western-based empiricism and Buddhist being to the essence of reality. Oh, and there’s plenty of Hamlet. But the smartness and frequent dream sequences work against the very human drama at work. We have a young woman from a ruptured family apparently dealing with a dissociative mental disorder, as well as a doctor saddled with his own personal crisis. The lofty arguments, literary allusions and dialogue seem well-suited for a graduate philosophy seminar, but it feels stilted when juxtaposed against what the two lead characters are enduring, which drains the dramatic momentum. Nash needs to decide if story or ideas are what matters most, and then re-focus his play. Again, sometimes the real work for a playwright comes after the first production. It can also be where the goddamn lonely, marginalized and frustrating process starts becoming fun.
OC-Centric at Chapman University’s Moulton Center Studio Theater, 300 E. Palm, Orange, (714) 902-5716; www.oc-centric.com. One-acts, Thurs.-Sat., Aug. 23-25, 8 p.m.; full-length play, Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. $23; students, $12.