If you are one of those who believe in such tomfoolery, the fifth anniversary is traditionally termed the wood anniversary, with the modern gift-giving equivalent being silverware. Well, let's keep the forks and knives away from some of the main characters in the six plays on tap in the fifth version of OC-Centric, Orange County's lone new play festival. Five of the six plays feature characters either suffering from delusions or who are highly unreliable observers of events–yanno, the kind of people you probably want to hide the steak knives from, just in case–and even the one that doesn't, Diana Burbano's Fabulous Monsters , features a couple of aging punk rockers who have dealt with their share of broken beer bottles and needles in the past, and seem quite capable of still smashing something into the closest face.
But while none of the six playwrights in the festival this year have written anything close to a lighthearted comedy (Leonard Joseph Dunham's Love's Lost Words comes the closest, but even he's got an old guy screaming about Communists and such), each has submitted works that are as poignant as they are pointed in uncomfortable directions. In some fashion, they all have something to do with memory and loss, moving on or stagnating, mortality and aging–and a whole lot of people who appear really f'ed in the head.
This year, OC-centric's artistic director, Tamiko Washington, and associate artistic director, Eric Eberwein, chose four one-acts and two full-lengths for the festival, which runs for two weekends at Chapman University. With the exception of Washington's experimental take on Hamlet, which turns the piece into a 30-minute condensed version of the Bard that puts Hamlet physically at the center of every main plot, the rest of the plays tilt toward the literal–even if several of the characters seem to exist in a far different reality.
Fabulous Monsters is probably the one most rooted in reality, but it's the heightened reality of 1970s punk rock. Two women, Sally and Lou, were at the forefront in the halcyon days of LA's punk scene, and while they're considered legends, their lives have taken starkly different paths. The play flips between the present, as a financially struggling Sally, or Slade, and the physically struggling Lou, now Luisa, meet for the first time in nearly 20 years at the urging of Luisa's teen-age daughter, an aspiring musician and fangirl, and the past, as we see how the two met and fell apart. In a weird way, it's about friendship and love, and hanging on to one's ideals, even if those ideals are the reason you're in bad shape in the first place.
And speaking of bad shape, the characters in the other full-length piece, Robert Riemer's Grace Note make Pinter's weirdos in The Homecoming, which Riemer's play shares some thematic similarities with, look like a junior high school choir. Dad and Chris, his eldest prodigal son, suffer from full-blown paranoid schizophrenia, and Dad's best friend, Norman, confined to a wheelchair, isn't much better. That leaves Michael, apparently the normal one of the crew (he's a mailman), but in this kingdom of the blind, not even a one-eyed man has a prayer. It's a tense, darkly funny, fucked up play that, like most plays, is about family. But rarely are families as fractured as this one.
The four one-acts aren't to be slighted just for being shorter. Along with Washington's take on Hamlet, and Dunham's relatively endearing play (at least compared to the other five) about an awkward math major making a fumbling attempt to woo an intense poetry student, while an elderly couple observes and tries to hang onto what's left of their marriage, they include: Spoken Allowed, by longtime OCC theater professor David Scaglione and Corrupt Impressions or The Dangerous Ones by Joni Ravenna.
The latter is a tight affair about a teacher who gets fingered (pun intended) for doing something that she may not have done while, at the same time, a man struggles with his own faulty perspective of a crime. While no one sees things, or hears voices, the theme of truth manifests, and the audience is never really sure who saw, or did, what. The last piece seems simple enough: an older man and his younger wife, who obviously have soured upon each other, exchange in an intricate power play without ever directly addressing the issue–or do they? Allowing the audience to hear the thoughts of characters goes back to Shakespearean asides, but few writers have toyed with the concept as intriguingly as Scaglione does in this. And when the question is raised if maybe those thoughts truly are heard, the play veers into nightmarish territory for one of the characters.
The big caveat in this is that these are all capsules of plays as written on the page. How they take life on the stage is up to the directors and the casts, but based on reading them, each offers intriguing, thought-provoking fare.
OC-Centric at Moulton Hall Studio Theatre, 300 E. Palm Ave., Orange, 714) 902-5716. Fabulous Monsters, Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Aug. 29, 2 p.m.; Aug 30, 7 p.m.; Grace Note, Sat., 8 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m., Aug. 27-28 8 p.m.; One-acts, Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Aug. 29, 8 p.m.; Aug. 30, 2 p.m. $12-$20. www.oc-centric.com www.facebook.com/occentric
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???