Orlando Shakes PlayFest: an annual celebration of new plays 

National New Play Network works to promote new work in regional theater

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LANDON ST. GORDON
  • PHOTO BY LANDON ST. GORDON

With every current TV and movie franchise seemingly sourced from decades-old pop culture, we turn to theater as the last bastion of originality in scripted entertainment. Enter PlayFest, Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s annual celebration of new works. Though this year’s event shrunk down to two days, I enjoyed several of last weekend’s one-time-only readings.

Moses, the Author, by Andrew R. Heinze (directed by Jason Loewith) portrays the Old Testament patriarch (Mark Ferrera) on his final day of life, as he struggles to finish writing the Bible before sunset with the aid of his scribe, Thusie (Christopher Joel Onken), but without his Almighty co-author. The script has wide swings in tone, bouncing from Seinfeldian sitcom to Martin Buber-esque “I/Thou” theological dialectic. The jokes are snappy and the scholarship sound (if snarky), but the sappy story arc in which Moses reconciles his bickering mother, Yohoved (Karel K. Wright), and wife, Zippy (Meghan Moroney), and bonds with his gay son, Gershy (Charlie A. Wright), feels maudlin and rote; I was more engaged by the insights into the agonizing act of authorship.

Julia (Sheryl Carbonell) and Patrick (Riley Clermont), the Ugly American protagonists of Rob Keefe’s All That Is Seen and Unseen (directed by Eleanor Holdridge), are detained on an unnamed third-world island after their adopted daughter takes a trip out their hotel window. A solicitous good-cop clerk (Avis-Marie Barnes) and officious bad-cop lieutenant (Corey Allen) interrogate the couple, uncovering questionable motives for their sanction-violating visit. The script initially builds solid tension, but then the repetitive dialogue grows irritating, as do the entitled lead characters, while the magic realism twist is too telegraphed to deliver the proper punch.

Reina Hardy’s Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven (directed by Michael Marinaccio) starred Sarah Caroline Billings in the title role of a precocious STEM prodigy being raised by her bipolar, SETI-obsessed father (Eric Pinder). The brilliant but bullied 13-year-old is nearly bonked on the head by an airborne pool ball, which generates a “manifestation of a mindful of an intergalactic supercomputer” in the form of an abrasive teen named Althea (Angela R. Damato) whom only Annie can see. Before you can say “letter from Hogwarts,” Annie is told she’s the “chosen one” and offered access to the universe’s infinite accumulation of knowledge. The catch is that she must abandon her increasingly erratic father to attend superior schools with her estranged grandparents.

Hardy says she wrote this script’s first draft “incredibly quickly” over three days, which shows in its sense of wonder and mythically inexorable (though not exactly predictable) energetic action. Annie Jump cannily balances between an emotionally grounded depiction of mental illness and kid-friendly empowerment fantasy; I can easily envision it as a young adult novel turned film series.

I couldn’t attend the PlayFest keynote address by Mark St. Germain, author of Freud’s Last Session and The Best of Enemies (running at Shakes through Nov. 16), nor the reading of his new comedy, Dancing Lessons. But I did catch the Playwrights Panel with Nan Barnett, executive director of the National New Play Network, of which Shakes is a core member. NNPN’s most visible program is the Rolling World Premiere, which launches new scripts by funding three mountings in different cities. Past Shakes shows Shotgun, Pluto and Exit Interview are among the 34 productions given momentum through the program, 32 of which went on to future productions.

NNPN’s next project seeks to bring new script discovery into the digital future. After a 20-city listening tour and beta testing since last April with 500 titles, NewPlayExchange.org is set to go public early next year. The website’s powerful metadata tag searching tools, multimedia content and social media components will help connect playwrights with theaters and producers searching for new works, with the intent of becoming “the literary archive of American theater going forward.”

NNPN’s ultimate goal is for regional theaters to stop relying, as Barnett said, on the “New York Times to act as [their] literary manager,” and to give authors of new plays an alternative to risky off-Broadway runs. Ironically, there isn’t even agreement on what constitutes a “new” play, with world premiere-itis (some theaters’ illogical aversion to second and third productions) on one end and widely produced, half-decade-old “new plays” like Venus in Fur on the other.

If you didn’t get enough newness at PlayFest, return to Shakes this weekend for Playwrights’ Round Table’s 5th Annual John Goring Memorial One-Act Series (Nov. 7-16). John Minigan, Tony Pelham and Rod McFadden provide three original short plays involving an incapacitated educator, an automobile accident and an invisible dog. Good, bad or ugly, you’re guaranteed something you’ve never seen before.

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