November 16, 2004

In UT workshops, offerings prove to be mixed bag

A man is in love with his washing machine. Latter-day cannibals invite the descendents of one of their previous "main courses" over to apologize. And six hyperactive youths act out everything they've never done before in their lives. Add a transvestite hooker and his pregnant ex-girlfriend and you'd get an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. Otherwise, it's just another Friday at University Theater (UT).

These weird, short, and sometimes frightening plays were part of the latest UT production (November 10-13), entitled Fourplay. (Fourplay—get it? It's a pun!) Fourplay, presented at the Reynolds Club's First Floor Theater, was a series of workshop plays performed over the course of four days. Three plays—Everything I've Never Done, Soap Opera, and Bill of Fare—were performed on Wednesday and Friday. The fourth play—A (Serious) Game for Three (Really Four) Players—was performed on Thursday and Saturday.

The first play, Everything I've Never Done—performed by an ensemble of UT actors, or an escaped group of mental patients (I couldn't tell which)—teemed with enthusiasm and vitality. Before the show, the ensemble was so energetic, dancing along to the theme from Footloose, that I felt like the audience was struggling not to get up and start dancing in the aisles themselves. Or was that just me?

Anyway, Everything I've Never Done, is free form, with no actual plot or direction, but merely the six performers acting out various things that they have never done before in their lives. Steve Kim has never ridden a bicycle before; his attempts to learn usually end in a heartbreaking (and pretty funny) fall off the bike. Gaby Ortiz's claim to have never slapped anyone provokes her comrades-in-drama to have a slapping intervention where they offer their cheeks to her hand. And Katie Hottinger, who was only in the chorus line for most of her high school's musical productions, finally got to trip the light fantastic center stage. Sure, it was surreal (members of the ensemble sing "Cheek to Cheek" over a dead body), and a little cathartic (a reenactment of an unrequited crush on the most popular girl in high school was particularly poignant). But "Everything" was a perfect way for these talented and eccentric actors to collaborate, channel their energies and imaginations, and just let loose. (And Steve does learn how to ride, sort of, at the end.)

Soap Opera, based on another play by David Ives, is confusing. As the title and opening line suggest, this begins as an episode of a stereotypical soap opera, with one minor distinction: A man falls in love with a washing machine (yeah, you read that correctly—man-on-washing-machine action). There was nothing wrong with the execution of the play, or the way the actors and the stage crew set it up. (Full disclosure: Rachel Levine, a Maroon News staffer, was director, and Maroon News staff members Zach Binney and Morvin Huggins were actors.)

It was the vagueness of the message of the play that provided the real problem. Was the plot a spoof on the ludicrous machinations of melodramatic daytime TV, or—as I thought—actually a commentary on how obsessed modern man has become with appliances? The repairman (Zach Binney), whose infatuation with the washing machine ("Maypool, that is") propels the story, makes a convincing argument that as modern man becomes more preoccupied with perfection and cleanliness, he also becomes more dependent on—and in some way, in love with—its machinery. But the situations that the actors portrayed were just too awkward; it was painful watching the repairman choosing the machine over human contact. On the plus side, Sarah Pickman made for a very enticing washing machine.

Not having control over what your cast says wasn't the problem for Chris Steele, who wrote and directed Bill of Fare. With Bill of Fare, you get average situations that normally could be funny—competitive co-workers, a stuffy British family sitting down for breakfast—thrown into a highly implausible and absurd situation. The situation: A tribe of cannibalistic Fijians ate a British missionary over a century ago, and now the Fijians are inviting his descendants to dinner to apologize. Even stranger? The situation is true.

With Bill of Fare, Steele takes an already bizarre true event and manages to exploit it within an inch of its life. From typing up a letter of apology (does Hallmark makes cards for "sorry for eating your relative?") to receiving the letter and the invitation, the humor is already in the situation. The characters in the story just amplify it. Scott Duncombe was extremely funny as a verbose, ambitious secretary—as was Laura Meisel, as his equally ambitious co-worker/nemesis. The twist ending, featuring always-dependable Reid Aronson as a Fijian minister who hasn't completely given up his ancestors' ways, felt a little tacked on. But otherwise, Bill of Fare made for some great comedy.

To sum up, for bite-sized, experimental plays, the productions of Fourplay can be a bit oddball (but still laugh-inducing). Instead of grandiose sets or over-the-top gimmicks, you get actors who know how to handle the dialogue they're given and aren't afraid of embarrassing themselves on stage. I consider that stage spirit, and it's always welcome where you can find it.