PlayFest = a bunch of characters

April 2-11 at
the Lowndes
Shakespeare Center

Prices vary by event

It's a lonely evening on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, just across the bridge that stretches from the city of New Orleans. Standing on an adjoining porch of an aged shotgun duplex — called a "double-barrel" because the two units are so close together there's a shared wall — a Katrina-displaced carpenter wants to rent the empty side, so he and his teen son can move out of a shelter. The landlady, eager for a tenant to help pay her mortgage, gets attitude from her literally washed-out father who must now count on her for support.

The above-described opening scene of Shotgun doesn't physically take the audience out of the theater in Loch Haven Park, but it does mentally transport them just blocks away from the lapping waters of the muddy Mississippi. That's the thrill and catharsis of live theater, just like eavesdropping on someone else's life. Shotgun is the leadoff production of Orlando Shakespeare Theater's annual PlayFest, and there are another dozen or so shows, readings, workshops plus special events to be shared at the 10-day event. (See PlayFest insert in this week's issue for the schedule.)

What's the PlayFest? According to the Orlando Shakes, in this context "Play" refers to a dramatic script and "Fest" means a celebration of the new. Every spring it's time for another edition of shows, readings and workshops, presented by the Shakes. The common element to all of the plays selected from entries submitted from around the country, including Orlando, are that they are all new and haven't been staged for the public. There are no antiquated works by Shakespeare here, just contemporary writers excited to see their ideas hammered into a set. It's all about putting the results of the creative process on display in front of an audience.

Shotgun, for example, was introduced as a reading at last year's PlayFest and caught the eye of many for its potential. This year the subtle story about love and life in the aftermath of a tragedy, written by notable New Orleans author John Biguenet, is receiving a full production (through April 11). The author's personal reaction to what happened to his town after Katrina drives the story of Shotgun, even as Biguenet borrows from the horrific realities that screamed from headlines. Biguenet, a Loyola University professor, gained national renown with regular contributions to his New York Times blog upon returning to New Orleans after the levees broke in 2005; his writings spoke the heart of the residents in distress and earned their respect, as well as followers across the world.

After hearing the initial reading of Shotgun, which Biguenet says was an "enormous contribution" to his finishing process, he was armed with audience responses and other feedback when he headed home. "I went back into that play to work on as accurate depiction of the people, their language and their circumstances as I could. … It is a very funny play — even in the midst of this catastrophe," he says.

Later chosen as the director, Lee came across the play before its reading at the 2008 PlayFest, and he was one of the people whose input had an impact on the revisions. Lee thought the language of the script played too much to insiders with its localisms. "I wanted to make sure that when anything was being discussed about geography or anything indigenous to New Orleans that Orlando ears wouldn't have a hard time sifting through them," says Lee. "I made sure that the actors didn't allow their rhythms to betray the information."

When a writer finishes his work, the director picks up and starts his job, casting the actors, selecting the crew and sitting down for the first reading. Ultimately, the synthesis of words, characters, actors and environment are constructed under the watchful eye of the director. Lee does capture a real sense of small-town New Orleans — not the overly spiced stereotype — and the emotions and prejudices of the characters affected by the flooding is made universally accessible.

One of the things Lee added to his production was a change of the set design. When Lee traveled to New Orleans to see an early production of Shotgun, all that was needed was a kitchen on a spare stage because locals understand the layout of a shotgun house — a bullet from a gun shot from the front door would travel straight through to the back door, through several rooms, with no hallways. Designer Bob Phillips's changing construction offers views of the front of the porch and inside the homey kitchen, which helps to bring an unfamiliar audience into the intimacy.

The lead actors chosen by Lee also contribute to the success: Rus Blackwell as the beleaguered father who must continue on, Chantal Jean-Pierre as the independent if frustrated woman who must care for her proud father, played by Dennis Neal. All three have been involved in varying aspects of Shotgun before finally landing in the Orlando project.

For Patrick Flick, the director of new play development at Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Shotgun ties his troupe to the National New Play Network. NNNP have helped to fund the production of Shotgun by three different companies for maximum exposure. The May 2009 production by Southern Rep in New Orleans was the first; the Orlando Shakes' PlayFest debut is the second, and Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota opens its version April 7.

From a user's point of view, the NNPN networking signifies the quality of Shotgun and hopefully the rest of the readings at PlayFest.

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