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Carrie Blake contemplates her next move in this scene from one of seven Competition Winners at the Actors Theatre Playhouse 2016 Ten Minute Play Festival.

The Arts

Actors Theatre Playhouse begins 2016 season with Ten Minute Play Festival

Elayne Clift, a monthly Voices columnist, often writes about the local arts and culture scene from Saxtons River. For more information or to reserve tickets, contact www.ATPlayhouse.org or call 877-666-1855. Reservations are highly recommended.

Curtain up! It’s time for a new season at the Actors Theatre Playhouse.

“The 2016 season offers a little something for everyone,” says Playhouse Artistic Director Sam Pilo. “It begins with the Ten Minute Play Festival in June, which offers a slate of unproduced gems never seen before.”

“This year’s Ten Minute Play Festival marks the eighth annual return, and features seven winners of the theatre’s year-long Regional Competition,” explains producer/director Jim Bombicino. “The festival was established to encourage the production of new works from New England writers while exposing our actors and new directors to the techniques and practices of working with playwrights and producing new plays.”

The winning scripts were selected by a committee of playhouse directors according to established criteria for quality 10-minute plays. Actors Theatre Playhouse also considered factors such as how well plays could be staged in its space, what scripts would work together for a balanced evening of theater, and how well audiences would receive them.

“This festival is a win-win,” Bombicino says. “The playwright gets his or her play produced, and ATP directors get an opportunity to refine their craft in a collaborative atmosphere.”

The festival raises a question: What do the following have in common?

A young woman battles voices in her head about her past; Alexander the Great meets his match; Someone makes a decision to go on a blind date that could be good, even if it kills them; A mother and child find perfection snow-sculpting Michelangelo’s David; Life imitates art, or something like that: What should you do when your 70th High School reunion beckons?

Clue: These stories are all part of this year’s festival and, as Pilo and company like to say, “Bet you can’t see just one!” The plays will be presented Fridays and Saturdays, June 10-25.

The Festival is followed in July by the staged reading of Bill Cain’s play, “Equivocation,” a tribute to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It raises another question: What if Shakespeare had never written “Macbeth?”

It’s London in 1606. Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot have terrorized Britain. King James I wants Shakespeare, or Shag, as his friends call him, to write a drama about the treasonous Gunpowder Plot that aimed to blow up Parliament.

Shag is thrown into a moral dilemma: How does he balance his loyalty to the crown with his commitment to creating complicated human beings with conscience rather than scripted political pablum? At the 11th hour, the world’s scribe makes a monumental decision: He substitutes “Macbeth” for the King’s commissioned play.

Cain, who founded a Shakespeare company in Boston, is both scholarly and humorous in his portrait of history’s most famous playwright, just as he is in his exploration of the moral obligations of artists. He offers the audience a thought-provoking, satirical play that examines the relationship of art to politics, and politics to art, and that ultimately says “no” to authority.

Thrown into the mix for good measure is a Shakespearean bit of father-daughter drama. “Equivocation” will be presented on Saturday July 9 and 16.

“Bad Jews” is a Main Stage production directed by Burt Tepfer, who is quick to explain the term.

Among Jewish people, he says, it refers to how someone who is Jewish relates to their cultural and religious heritage. A “good Jew” embraces the rituals, language, and religious traditions of Judaism, whereas a “bad Jew” shies away from those traditions.

As Tepfer puts it, “the show centers around how and how much young adults identify with the cultural and religious heritage they have inherited. Some align closely with their family’s observances and history while others wish to shed their Jewishness and move fully into America’s melting pot.”

Written by Josh Harmon, the play has been called “smashingly venomous” and “blisteringly” funny as it weaves between serious debate and hilarity. It revolves around two twenty-something cousins and two additional characters, all of whom come together after the funeral of Poppy, their Jewish grandfather and family patriarch.

Poppy, it seems, has left a Chai (“Life”) necklace which he hid in his mouth as a Holocaust survivor. Each of his grandchildren believes it should be bequeathed to them.

Arguing like, in the words of one critic, “Upper West Siders whose brunch reservations have not been honored,” the characters battle over observance, secularity, marrying a Gentile, and more as Harmon grapples with what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.

Called “the best comedy of the 2013-14 season” by The New York Times, this is a play not to be missed. It will be presented on Fridays and Saturdays, July 29-Aug. 13.

It’s a tough act to follow, but the staged reading of George Bernard Shaw’s classic, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” which pits mother and daughter against each other, is up to the challenge.

Performed in 1902 in London, the play so angered critics that it was banned for years and, at its first New York performance, the actors were arrested.

As Shaw himself said, “It’s much my best play, but it makes my blood run cold. ...When I wrote that, I had some nerve.”

Mrs. Warren’s profession is, of course, prostitution, which makes it difficult for her to tell her daughter Vivie what she does for a living. Things get even more difficult when Vivie’s suitor’s father, a clergyman, realizes he and Mrs. Warren have met in the past.

When Mrs. Warren tells Vivie that she made choices about how she would live so as to escape poverty and drudgery — “The house in Brussels was real high class, a much better place for women than in the factory” — Vivie calls her mother “stronger than all of England.”

But she has trouble accepting that Mrs. Warren continues in her chosen profession even though it’s no longer financially necessary, a perfect vehicle for theatrical fireworks. The play will be presented on two Saturdays: Aug. 20 and Aug. 27.

The second Main Stage production of the season, “The Boys Next Door,” a comedy-drama written by Tom Griffin as the Americans with Disabilities Act came into being, tells the story of four mentally challenged men who live in a group home for people with special needs.

Griffin manages to create unsentimental characters who remain dignified and humane in the midst of chaos. They learn to cope to the best of their abilities.

Arnold, for example, who has been tricked by the neighborhood grocer into buying nine boxes of cereal, must find the courage to return them and get a refund. Barry, who wants to become a pro golfer to please his father, struggles to come to grips with his father’s dreadful behavior.

These are just some of the situations these brave men must deal with, situations that add to their isolation while drawing the audience into their stories as they learn to appreciate small victories and overcome defeats.

Even with all this, the play is filled with raucous comedy, offering a chance to observe people’s lives as they struggle, much as the rest of us do in one way or another. Together, through a series of vignettes, we see “a moving picture of life, friendship and living with adversity,” as one critic put it. The play will be presented Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, Sept. 8- Oct. 1.

The ATP season closes with the reprise of “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” Nora and Delia Ephron’s staged production based on the book by Ilene Beckerman.

Directed by Marilyn Tullgren, the scrapbook of stories about prom dresses, fitting room, high heels, short skirts and much more is both comic and moving. A huge hit last year and back by popular demand, it is performed by a cast of five women who sit on chairs and talk about their lives using clothing as a catalyst.

One piece celebrates the perfection of black as a wardrobe staple, while another recalls the wounding words of a mother. The range of tales is that broad, revealing the lighter moments in women’s lives along with moments and memories that take courage to explore, such as those involving rape and breast cancer. Throughout the stories, women’s resilience, courage, and savvy prevail.

“The play brought the house down,” a New York Times reviewer noted, “but it is not a comedy.”

All in all, the Actors Theatre Playhouse 41st season, with 50 performers and directors, is an exciting time for artists and audiences alike.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #359 (Wednesday, June 1, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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