Taking it to the Street
Five Short Plays
Notable Acts Summer Theatre Festival
August 2-6, 2004
The NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival has continued its tradition of presenting "outdoor theatre" for the wider community with five new short plays (five to seven minutes in length) again this year. As always (or at least for the last two years, since the festival has literally taken its productions to the street), the challenge is partly that in the open air, without the assistance of an acoustically enclosed space, lights, and a sound system, theatre often becomes exaggerated, and difficult for an audience to engage with. Actors have to overplay; audiences are distracted and have short attention spans; sound systems are erratic; and, in this case, the plays are extraordinarily short. Watching these five plays, in fact, I was reminded of the "postcard story" contests that creative writing programs have begun running in the last few years. You'd think writing a story short enough to fit on a postcard was pretty easy -- and in fact, it is. The hard part is writing a good story that fits on a postcard.
This year's batch of plays is, like last year's, a mixed bag, representing a fairly wide range of choices, from a one-character monologue about a salesman by Kyle Peters (The Act of Living) to a four-character piece of what looks like real street theatre by Dan Gleason (Spare Change); from a domestic contretemps by Stephen Taylor (The Father and the Floozy Fiasco) to a quirky David-Ives-style pickup take by Stephanie Yorke (Clover), to a knockabout "police procedural" farce by Ryan Griffith (Irk). All five productions had difficulties taking the good ideas the scripts were built on and making them tight and engaging in the limited time available, but all offered moments of insight or amusement, and sometimes both, and it was clear on the wonderfully warm and sunny opening day (New Brunswick Day, appropriately) that the surprisingly large audience was charmed and engaged.
Opening the hour was Dan Gleason's Spare Change, in which Emily Curry and Richard Russell portrayed what seemed to be a father-daughter team of lost street people who encounter a strange woman speaking in a kind of pastiche of Elizabethan English (Meghan Mesheau, in a role rather like the one she played in last year's festival (Sunflowers), and trying to figure out what "spare" and "change" might mean. (For a moment, I thought her language might be the point, "infecting" others the way "Dogg" infects others in Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet, but it was not to be.) This is interrupted by a businessman walking by, who at first seems attracted by the feckless daughter, but on his return decides, or discovers, that they're running a scam and berates them in terms the Fredericton community is fairly familiar with. When the lost Elizabethan returns, having figured out what "spare change" is, and now having some, it's too late. I'm still not sure I understood the connection between the two: perhaps with another couple of minutes it might have been clearer.
Both The Father and the Floozy Fiasco and The Act of Living had almost the opposite problem, in being rather too obvious: on the one hand the father berating the son for unspecified derelictions, and then deciding that the son's companion was actually pretty attractive, and pushing the son aside; and on the other the monologue of the salesman presenting his empty and fairly contemptible existence, made their points rather too explicitly, and if anything were slightly too long. Nicholas Cole was an energetic and effective naive son, and Scott Shannon as the salesman was remarkably engaging as the repellent salesman, but both were rather overwhelmed by the tendency of the scripts to explain rather than show. Do we need the salesman to tell us that he's just conned a customer, or was lying to his family? Do we need the father to announce that he's just tricked his son?
Clover almost fell into the same trap, but was redeemed by the cleverness of the dialogue. As the skeptical target of the pickup, Rebecca Tremblay had lots of wonderful random guesses as to what the pickup artist accosting her actually was unique for, and Seann Murray as the pickup artist had lots of opportunities to be bluffly secretive about what his secret, unique quality was. And indeed, the ability to be surprised, interested and engaged by everything ("Mozzarella! Sensory overload!") turns out, in fact, to be a pretty effective pickup device.
I have to confess I didn't quite get the point of Ryan Griffith's knockdown, slapstick police procedural, Irk: however attractive the idea of "old man's strength" ("a particular kind of strength," Andrew Jones as the police chief explains, "most commonly found in old men") might be, I wasn't convinced either by the swaggering conflict among the two younger officers (both strongly played by Greg Shanks and Matthew Spinney), or by the chief's intervention. I kept looking for something more specific and substantial to be at stake in the conflicts.
In all, the five plays offered an audience committed to theatre a chance to watch some interesting ideas and some engaged and creative attempts to deal with difficult scripts. Whether this is enough for a theatre initiative committed not only, as it says, to introducing New Brunswick playwrights to a larger stage, but also to attracting those who might not already be committed to the kind of active, engaged attending that theatre rewards isn't clear to me. I certainly hope that the size of the Monday noon audience augurs well, and that the folks who walk through the Tannery at lunchtime for the rest of the week find enough there to attract them to sit down, and perhaps to lure them up to the Black Box for the rest of the festival (and, of course, later on to the Box, and Memorial Hall, and, yes, the Playhouse, for the rich drama culture that Fredericton seems to be developing).