Gettin' play

Eric Hissom would prefer to think that the American stage play is better than a dying breed. And it's not just because his title at Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival is Director of New Play Development.

"If you're a fan of the theater, you should consider supporting new plays, because that's what replenishes the art form," he says, espousing both a personal philosophy and a major platform in OSF's ongoing mission. "New plays arguably could be more fun, more relevant to your life. These are writers that are writing in our time, about us."

That helps explain why the OSF is inaugurating PlayFest: The Orlando Festival of New Plays, a nine-day series of readings, workshops and special events keyed to the exposure of new (or at least developing) works. Some of the area's best actors and directors will give voice to scripts that haven't yet attained the revered status of a "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," or even a "Starlight Express." Many, in fact, have never received a full production on any stage.

According to Hissom -- who, in addition to running the festival, is performing writing, directing and acting -- "PlayFest" is the logical outgrowth of OSF endeavors like PlayLab. In that still-thriving program, audiences are invited to check in on every stage of a show's development, from humble readings to slightly more elaborate workshop productions. If PlayLab is the NFL, Hissom kids, then "PlayFest" is its SuperBowl I. Or maybe it's just a really good college bowl game -- a high-profile showcase that depends on its organizers' ability to search out some of the most promising talent in the field.

"We're using this as a way to really dedicate some of our time and resources to the development of new plays," he says.

The 29 scripts selected for the inaugural edition come from both local and national authors, and there's a commensurate diversity of styles and subject matter. Readings and workshops produced by the festival itself further its mandate to remain grounded in history and/or the classics, while "guest theaters" like the Orlando Theatre Project and Invictus T.C. weigh in with narratives beholden only to their authors' imaginations.

With the exception of three full-stage productions resurrected from various installments of the Orlando International Fringe Festival, these will be simpler, less involved endeavors than most theatergoers are used to. Actors' movements will be at a premium, and even in the case of the more polished workshops, the performers may not yet be "off book." But the atmosphere should be anything but static -- not with the SAK Comedy LabRats periodically bum-rushing the show to perform impromptu One Minute Plays. And then there are the Voice Mail Plays, recorded slices of drama available free to anyone who picks up a phone in the lobby of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center. "PlayFest" also will open its doors to award-winning scribes Len Jenkin and Israel Horovitz, who will discuss the procedures and ramifications of their art form in educational sessions geared toward professionals and laymen alike.

All that's asked of the audience is that they aren't too persnickety about the definition of the term "new play." Serious theater hounds will notice that a few of these pieces have been read and/or workshopped at various locales over the years. But Hissom knows that "PlayFest" needs to be an entertainment product in its own right, not just a tool for struggling authors. Given a choice, he'd rather present a relatively sturdy work with some tweaking already under its belt than a rough draft that's never benefited from one iota of feedback.

"Usually, even if you get Tony Kushner's new play, his first draft is going to be bad," he reveals.

All of this expertise and good intent, however, can't answer one thorny question: Will it fly? After all, Orlando already has one theater festival -- the Fringe -- that's still trying to establish a foothold in the public consciousness after some 12 years in existence. You have to wonder what room there is for a second cousin -- and one that's arguably even more esoteric -- to succeed.

"When the dust clears after this one, and we do our postmortem, we very well may see that the market's just not there," Hissom admits. "But I have a lot of confidence that it is a good thing, and that it will produce more theatergoing."

You can't ask much more from a first draft.

[email protected] To wit: Eric Hissom assembles a celebration of the written words that bring characters to life photo: gregg matthews

The bill in brief

Compromise -- "PlayFest" organizer Eric Hissom directs a one-time-only reading of Israel Horovitz's ruminative drama, in which a cancer researcher approaching the age of 60 looks back on the compromises his life has entailed. Issues of race, ambition and identity also figure into the story, which will be enhanced by PowerPoint presentations that allow us to read the various characters' e-mails. Hey, if it's good enough for Ashcroft ...

Dead Man Flying -- Anyone lucky enough to have experienced writer/actor Hissom's dreamlike, black-comic exploration of family matters and liberal politics (seen at the last Orlando International Fringe Festival) may be surprised that he felt the need to improve upon it. But that's just the aim of this expanded, 75-minute version (up from the original 60), which Hissom says gives greater play to his ailing-father character and indulges in more surreal imagery. In another significant change, actress Sarah Matthews replaces the absent Megan Whyte, who is neither dead nor flying but living in Los Angeles.

Edward III -- You may be wondering how a 400-year-old text qualifies as a "new" play. Well, would you settle for "newly credited"? Anonymous for centuries, this historical work was only recently ruled an official product of old Bill Shakespeare himself. Faculty and students from the UCF-Conservatory Theatre portray multiple roles and take on the daunting challenge of interpreting battlefield scenes in a play-reading format. We certainly hope that use of the word "owie" is permitted.

Hammy Does Denmark -- Playwrights Roundtable has presented two prior airings of material from John Goring's musical-comedy version of "Hamlet." This one's a book-only read-through that omits the songs and choreography to concentrate on the plot, in which a pair of manipulative stagehands exert unimagined control over a touring community-theater troupe. It's directed by Joseph Pinckney of Washington, D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Institute.

Holmes! -- Not another tribute to porn star John, but rather a musical paean to detective Sherlock. In development since 1997, this 18-character mystery extravaganza gets a workshop production set to a CD recording of its fully orchestrated score. Cast member Gene Bastarache directs from Hans Vollrath and Brett Nicholson's script, in which the legendary sleuth confronts a lost love and an old enemy. Three of the leads have been with the show for the full six years, which is an admirably long time to spend in a deerstalker cap.

Isadora -- Local playwright David McElroy has been working on this memoir of the life of modern-dance doyenne Isadora Duncan for some 12 years. In that time, it's grown from a one-woman show to a two-character piece in which a piano player (OSF's Christopher G. Taylor) portrays all the men in Duncan's (Marilyn McGinnis) life. McElroy himself directs a workshop production of one of "PlayFest's" least obscure offerings: Readings have previously been held for audiences in Minnesota and Florida, and full stagings have graced theaters in Tampa and Boca Raton.

It's a Jungle Out There -- The first of "PlayFest's" two children's shows is a musical tribute to cooperation, with a cast of six adults playing animals who feel left out of the "in" crowd. Here receiving its second public airing, the original script sprang from the mind of author Fern Matthews, once a writer for the animated series "The Tales of Waterville" and now managing director of the theater department at the University of Central Florida. Director Nancy Stuart's place in the animal kingdom is as OSF's company manager.

Kraken -- New York playwright Len Jenkin contributes a history-based piece in which a globetrotting Herman Melville stops in to visit Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife. All the while, Melville is pursued by the figure of death, who insists on critiquing his books. The staged reading is directed by David Lee, a collaborator of Jenkin's for 12 years. Its all-star cast includes Eric Hissom, Sarah Matthews, Paul Wegman, Janine Klein, Eric Pinder, Joe Swanberg, Jennifer Skidmore and Tom Nowicki (recently of the feature film "The Punisher" -- now there's a deathly figure for ya).

La Putain Avec les Fleurs -- A runaway hit at the 2002 Fringe, this multifaceted musical revue has an early-20th-century flair, using songs, puppetry and other theatrical sleights of hand to depict the strange personal odyssey of a Parisian clown. Masterminds Rocky Hopson and Rob Houle have expanded the show for its "PlayFest" run, and actress Cindy Pearlman has ceded the title role of the putain (that's "whore" for you monolingual types) to Natalie Cordone. The simultaneous replacement of lead mountebank Aaron Wiederspahn with Christopher Lee Gibson shouldn't hurt in the least, but we're honestly most enticed by the return of the Big French Bear.

The Lives of Bosie -- New Yorkers have already witnessed Austin Pendleton and Sean Duggan perform a public reading of author John Wolfson's literarily minded drama, which sees an older Lord Alfred Douglas looking back on his life and involvement with Oscar Wilde. Now Orlando's Frank McLain and T. Robert (Robby) Pigott get to portray the lead duo, as well as the lawyers, lovers and other supporting players who populate Wolfson's script. Director Chris Jorie (of the Orlando Theatre Project) helps keep the story, um, straight.

Mr. Story and the Supposed Gauguin -- "Intelligent but flawed" seemed to be the consensus opinion of local writer Tod Kimbro's character-driven think piece when it debuted at the 2003 Fringe. This Fringe Reloaded reprise reportedly streamlines the dramatic story of a young artist who's forced to swim in a sea of ulterior motives. In the role of the enigmatic Mr. Story, actor Joe Swanberg takes over for Rocky Hopson, who's devoting his attention to mounting "La Putain" one more time. (Stop snickering: You know what we meant.)

Oedipus @ the Crossroads -- Playwright Martin Coren turns a fresh eye (sorry!) to one of literature's most disturbing tales, putting renowned mother-fancier Oedipus in a position to change his horrible destiny. Director Paula Rossman (an alum of SAK Theatre, The Rogue Theatre and currently an OSF intern) discerns "a wonderfully cynical edge of humor" in Coren's words. Actor Jordan Reeves plays the original mama's boy.

The Pharaoh's New Robes -- In penning the second of "PlayFest's" two children's shows, OSF education director April-Dawn Gladu cross-pollinated the classic tale of the emperor's new clothes with the lesser-known, real-life story of Hatshepsut, who may have ruled Egypt for as many as 30 years during the 18th dynasty. Directed by Epcot show director Rhonda Day, the staged reading includes six songs by composer Kevin Harris, all of which assist author Gladu in her mission to redefine "perfection" as a combination of love and forgiveness. And here we thought it was simply about chromosomes ...

The Sandman Says Goodnight -- Pro-ducer Invictus T.C. is a local theater company expressly devoted to spotlighting new works. The group's call for submissions caught the eye of New York writer Barry McKinley, whose Sandman details the tormented final hours of a traveling salesman's life. Invictus founder Rob Anderson directs the "PlayFest" reading; the title role is performed by Bobbie Bell, who starred in the group's inaugural production of Paul Kiernan's "Noodling Inspiration" last June at Lowndes.

School Daze -- People's Theatre takes African-American awareness to campus in the first-ever reading of its specially commissioned adaptation, based on both the seminal Spike Lee film and its accompanying book, "The Making of School Daze." People's founder Canara Price teams with actor/director Ray Hatch to shepherd a 12-person cast through Ken Towery's adapted text.

Time -- Seminole Community College students perform alongside Equity actors as the Orlando Theatre Project presents a wild comedy about crushing deadlines. OTP resident company member Jerry Klein directs this staged reading of another Paul Kiernan script, in which a man attempts to make something of his life before he's condemned to the "cosmic burrito of nothingness." Mmmmm ... nothingness.

Trapezium -- OSF veteran director Russ Treyz promises "light, breezy, very articulate" fun from this workshop production, which retells the story of Tristan and Iseult from three conflicting perspectives. Even better, playwright Henry Rathvon is a puzzle writer for The New York Times -- which all but guarantees that this show's playful iambic pentameter should read as well vertically as it does from left to right.

The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge -- Mark Brown, author of OSF's "Around the World in 80 Days," grabs another English-lit credit with a workshop piece set one year after the events of "A Christmas Carol." Having filed suit against Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas, Scrooge takes to court, throwing the entire future of the holiday into doubt. Director Arlen Bensen (Orlando Theater Project, Fringe '96) has corralled a heavyweight cast of familiar faces, including Rus Blackwell, Mark Lainer, J.D. Sutton and the mighty Philip Nolen as Scrooge.

Twelve Ophelias -- New York playwright Caridad Svich turns the Hamlet story on its head, bringing Ophelia back from her watery grave to make sense of her final days ... and conduct a revisionist relationship with a certain crazy Dane. Director (and OSF company member) Suzanne O'Donnell has herself played the doomed heroine on two separate occasions, and you know what that means: payback, hey-nonny-nonny-style.


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