click to enlarge Native Voices, 'Where It Is Eaten'

Photo courtesy Rob Cunha

Native Voices, 'Where It Is Eaten'

Three different new-play fests give Orlando theater fans triple the chances to celebrate original stories on stage 

Orlando Shakespeare Theater's annual Playfest returned on Nov. 1, once again attracting authors from across America with staged readings of new scripts. Playfest, which continues through Nov. 8, has grown into a key event for the National New Play Network, and a frequent feeder for the Shakes' mainstage seasons. But Playfest wasn't Orlando's only opportunity to experience original plays last weekend; heck, it wasn't even the only one going on inside the Lowndes Shakespeare Center. Two other new script showcases are occurring simultaneously in the shadow of Shakes' Playfest this weekend, giving theater fans triple the chances to celebrate original stories on stage.

At the same time last Friday night that Playfest 2019 was kicking off in the Margeson Theater, I was next door in the Santos Dantin Studio attending the latest presentation from the Playwrights' Round Table (theprt.com). While Playfest comes just once a year, as PRT president Chuck Dent pointed out in his preshow speech, Playwrights' is "the only theater company in Central Florida that does original plays year-round." The organization has been active for almost 23 years, and as Dent says, "If you like to see new work at the ground level, at the grass-roots level, this is a great place to do it."

Native Voices, PRT's fourth and final production of this year, is an octet of 10-minute plays by Central Florida playwrights. While the scenes don't explicitly adhere to a common theme, I noticed their authors share a concern – common among many artists these days – about how technology is thwarting human communication. The program gets off to a strong start with Split by Tracey Jane, an adult take on Pixar's Inside Out that anthropomorphizes the logical and emotional hemispheres (Grace Trotta, Isabella Jones) of an overstressed wife's (Rachael Russell) brain. As she contemplates divorcing her Star Wars-obsessed schlub of a husband (Bennett Webb), her dreams manifest as a pizza sauce-smearing nightmare (Daniel Noble). Chuck Dent directs the ridiculous yet relatable scenario with the comic timing of a sitcom pilot, and later reunites most of the cast for Ayal Wolf's workplace satire Missypants, which closes out the evening.

The lighthearted pair forms much-needed bookends for some of the heavier fare in between. John Kelly's Stoned, directed by Kate Denson, stars Daniel Molina and Rob Cunha in a Python-esque skit about a man crushed by a boulder that has a Beckettian bittersweetness under the surface. The pair return in Irene L. Pynn's hilariously disturbing Where It Is Eaten, directed by Ginny Fraebel, which imagines what would happen if Hamlet's indecisiveness were exploited by a homicidal artificial intelligence (Russell). And Tony Pelham's Eye of the Beholder, also directed by Dent, is a self-admitted Black Mirror homage about a smarmy salesman (Aidan Bohan-Moulton) pitching "Photoshop for the brain" to a skeptical customer (Carolyn Ducker); just when it seems to be heading for a happy ending, it sucker-punches you.

Hands down, the best reason to see this Native Voices is Nicole Darden Creston's performance in Isolation, directed by Jac LeDoux, in which she co-stars with author David Strauss (co-owner of the Kitty Beautiful cat café that was the subject of last week's column) as survivors of a zombie outbreak. Anyone who has seen a Romero film will quickly realize where this is going, but Creston – who was one of Orlando's best actresses before becoming a familiar voice to local NPR listeners – delivers a tour de force monologue that demonstrates more gut-wrenching emotional range than the entire last season of The Walking Dead.

Less than two miles up the road, Art's Sake Studio is hosting Play de Luna: Power Hungry (playdeluna.com), an evening of original one-act comedies. The 20-year-old acting school on Clay Street has soldiered on in the wake of founder Yvonne Suhor's death last year, continuing to offer classes and present shows under producers Christy Poggi and David Meneses. The Meisner-based company strives for "an edgier, more crazed, urban feeling," and their current production succeeds in straining boundaries with outrageous adults-only subject matter and acting choices that are consistently bold, if not necessarily psychologically coherent.

Power Hungry features original scripts by local writers including Lynde Schmidt, Alex Streu, Rachael Thompson and Ryan Holmes. My personal picks of the evening were the concluding couple involving longtime Art's Sake collaborator John Connon, who directed Thompson's slapstick horror Pieces of You, in which Jennifer Utsey and Austin Lampe play bickering siblings bartering with the organ-hoarder threatening to repo their kidneys. Connon also penned Creepy Dolly, directed by Schmidt. It's All About Eve with a Toy Story twist, featuring a trio of vintage playthings (Rudy Saint Cyr, Clare Chezzi, Melissa Corbin) forced to cope with a conniving Barbie clone (Kristin Calhoun).

But the vocal Saturday night audience's clear favorites were the two female-focused shorts bracketing intermission. Elsie Lockwood's Snatch and Release, directed by Chris Walker, sees Madeleine Elise interacting with her own brain and vagina (Sarah Malfara, Sarah Yoho) in the funniest (and first) skit about vaginismus I've ever seen. And Laina Burgess' Employ(h)er, directed by Lindsi Jeter, sees Jana Henry leading a corporate HR diversity seminar in a world where "men of no color" are considered disadvantaged minorities. Power Hungry continues through Nov. 23, so you have two more weekends to judge for yourself which one seems more improbable.

This story appears in the Nov. 6, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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