Raising the curtain
Carrie Blake in a scene from the 2013 Ten Minute Play Festival at Actors Theatre Playhouse.

Raising the curtain

Actors Theatre Playhouse opens 2017 season with 10 Minute Play Festival

It's that time of year again, when summer theaters re-open and New England stages gift us with a potpouri of offerings that make us laugh, cry, smile, and ponder.

The Actors Playhouse Theatre in West Chesterfield, N.H., begins its new season on June 8, with its 10th Ten Minute Play Festival, featuring seven winners of the theater's year-long Regional Competition.

This year's plays once again promise a wide range from comedy to drama, guaranteeing a little something for everyone.

The plays reveal unusual scenarios and raise quirky questions.

A man and a woman with seemingly disparate interests meet at an auction and soon discover they might be in the same boat.

A playwright pitches his play about the Holocaust, but what will his soul cost?

Two adults meet under a lamppost while waiting for a bus, and each must face their own vulnerability.

What happens when you mess with old people? Try taking their orders for breakfast and find out!

A stand-up comedienne visits an AIDS quilt and heals an old wound.

Two middle school students attempt to solve political polarization in America.

An artist writes a play about a man writing a play about a man writing a....

Popular genre

Ten minute play festivals have become an established, popular genre throughout the theater world. Playwrights love the challenge, and thousands have been written by well-known playwrights as well as by neophytes and students of theater. Actors Playhouse Theatre has been a training ground for new directors and actors, many of whom have gone on to direct or act in Main Stage and Staged Reading productions.

“The f-estival was established to encourage the production of new works from New England writers while exposing our actors and directors to the techniques and practices of working with playwrights producing new plays.” explains co-producer Jim Bombicino.

“Each year the winning scripts are selected by a committee of playhouse directors according to established criteria for quality 10-minute plays,” he added. “We consider factors such as how well plays can be staged in our space, what scripts would work together for a balanced evening of theater, and how well audiences might receive them.”

“This season, all our staged readings and Main Stage plays confront the conundrum of 'family',” says ATP artistic director Sam Pilo. “Audiences will find themselves focusing on the fun and frustration of being related to people they like, love, or loathe.”

The festival is followed by a staged reading of The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, a funny and moving story of neighbors who share their last name, and a not entirely casual backyard conversation.

The play opens with Bob and Jennifer Jones enjoying an evening at their picnic table. Their small-talk conversation bears signs of unease. Enter John and Pony Jones bearing a bottle. They have chosen to live where they do, Pony explains, because she “always wanted to live in one of these little towns near the mountains.”

When Bob disappears inside the house to fetch wine glasses, Jennifer says they moved to town because Bob has a degenerative disease with a poor prognosis and a good specialist lives nearby.

Words unspoken

It's this kind of disjointed dialogue that reveals what Eno is really tackling, namely communication and all its absurdities. He demonstrates how words remain unspoken, how they are hurled from one person to another, how inadequate language can be, how much we yearn for words of love and comfort. And all the while, he can be quite hilarious.

The evolving and fragile relationships of the two couples form the plot and serve as a vehicle for the playwright's reflections on life's disappointments and frustrations.

As the story progresses via short scenes/sketches, all four Joneses seem like normal folks - but for their often-disordered way of communicating. It's a mechanism Eno employs successfully to reveal how we muddle through life and its events, whether they bring us laughter, sadness, or simply a huge “Huh?”

“I liked this play instantly because it felt like a real interaction between two sets of strangers. The characters are awkward and lack boundaries which leads to witty comments and uncomfortable exchanges. Anyone who has ever held a conversation with someone they've just met is likely to see themselves in these characters,” says director Michelle Page.

For its initial Main Stage production, the Playhouse returns to a favorite playwright with Alan Ayckbourn's award-winning comedy Table Manners. A simple dinner at the family's country home explodes as siblings and in-laws engage in combat over love, marriage, and other relationship issues.

The house belongs to an unseen, tyrannical invalid woman whose unmarried daughter, Annie, cares for her. On the evening when the play opens, Annie's brother Reg and his wife Sarah have arrived to take care of Annie's mum so that she can get away for a weekend. Sarah assumes a tryst has been arranged with the local vet, Tom.

Havoc ensues, especially when the rest of the family shows up.

An excuse to laugh

Table Manners is a genuine excuse to laugh. As one critic put it, “Six characters, hilariously unaware of their own flaws, represent two marriages grown stale and one courtship that can't get off the ground.”

The gifted playwright, winner of many awards, is, of course, reflecting in his inimitable style on marriage, family, and states of mind. As director Marilyn Tullgren says, “We all get lonely, just as one character in the play muses. Indeed. Table Manners is a meditation on loneliness and more wrapped in a sweet coating of delicious comedy."

Ayckbourn, who has been called “the most remarkable British dramatist since Harold Pinter,” is a hard act to follow, but the staged reading of A Delicate Balance by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee rises to the occasion.

Set in Connecticut, it features Agnes and Tobias, an upper-class married couple whose relationship has been an uneasy one for several years. Agnes's sister, Claire, lives with them and, despite her perpetual drinking, denies that she suffers from alcoholism.

Agnes and Tobias's daughter, Julia, about to be divorced for the fourth time, has returned home, but her room has been usurped by Tobias and Agnes's best friends, Harry and Edna, who have fled their own home because of a nameless terror.

“Edward Albee writes as though he'd filed every typewriter key down to a fine point and replaced the space bar with a scalpel,” one critic wrote when the play premiered in 1966.

It's an apt description of this ominous domestic drama in which all the characters seem to be terrified, as though teetering on the brink of some menacing threat. As Agnes puts it at one point, “It's one of those days where everything's happening underneath.”

Albee, who also wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is brilliant at this sort of existential fear. As he put it when writing about this play, “[It's about] the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice.”

Director Wendy Almeida says she finds the play funny as well as horrifying as it deals with failed lives and poisonous relationships.

“This play has sung to me since I first read it in my 20s,” she says. “One of the questions I ask myself now is 'how universal are the dynamics of this family?' I suspect they are more universal than we'd like to admit.”

She also notes that “We're living in a time when the 'existential fear' Albee mentioned has become more pervasive than at any time since the 60s,” making for interesting audience reactions.

A Chekhov masterpiece

The Playhouse closes its season with a Main Stage production of one of Chekhov's masterpieces, Uncle Vanya. It's a cautionary tale about the invisible suffering of ordinary people, the futility of service to others, and the fragility of beauty, and illusions, especially when born of jealousy and ennui.

The story revolves around a retired professor who, returning to his estate to live with his young wife, Yelena, mindlessly manages to trip over 'sleeping dogs,' unleashing a whirlwind of passion and disillusionment.

The estate once belonged to the professor's first wife, now deceased, and her mother, brother, and daughter - Sonya - still live there. Add the desolate physician Astrov, along with the household servants, and you have the makings of a classic Russian drama.

Significantly, Chekhov paints this picture within an environment where one tends to feel simultaneously safe and comfortable but, at the same time, trapped and vulnerable - the place we call “home.”

He is the acknowledged master of creating an atmosphere of tedium, tension, and desolation mixed with the farce of the human comedy. Even talking seems an effort. Everyone is annoyed, jittery, and afraid of what might come next. In true Chekhovian style, we are left to wonder if this portrait of hope-starved lives is meant to be farce, tragedy, or perhaps both.

“This is a play long on my list for exploration,” says Pilo. “Over the years, we have had many 'table reads' featuring a multitude of translations and adaptations. With this latest one, the play has been stripped to its bare bones.

“And just when you think you are engrossed in a drama, you find yourself witness to a farce. Chekhov dances on this edge masterfully while his far-reaching themes are utterly contemporary and his concerns over mental health and environmental action remain topical.”

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