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Since 2004, women thespians throughout Southeast Michigan have joined together to stage an annual festival of plays to showcase the work of female directors. The event has morphed from “Pandora’s Box Fest” (a small fundraiser in Ann Arbor) to “BoxFest Detroit ’09” (a greatly expanded, three-weekend event at The Furniture Factory in Detroit) – and recent festivals have helped a handful of women knock down the doors to what has traditionally been a male-dominated bastion in Michigan’s slice of the professional theater industry.
Critics Donald V. Calamia and D.A. Blackburn attended the opening weekend of “BoxFest Detroit ’09” and reviewed 14 plays (ranging from approximately 10 minutes to an hour each) with but one singular objective: to see how well these novice and up-and-coming directors interpreted and staged their plays.
The plays are divided into hour-long “boxes” of time spread out over two days, with a brief intermission in-between each box. So you can see one box or see them all. The result, the two critics agree, is a rather fun and engaging visit to the theater!
The challenge for both director Jaime Moyer and actress Jill Dion was to take Kelly Rossi’s three “Monologues” and create three totally different and interesting characters from them – and they did so with great success. The opening scene about a mother who obsesses over making school lunches every day warmed the audience for the best of the three: a morality tale about a turtle who wants to live like a snake. The third monologue was hampered somewhat by a weak ending supplied by the playwright, but Dion and Moyer rode the character’s emotional roller coaster quite well.
Possibly the best production of the festival is “The Opal Show,” written by playwright Kim Carney and directed by Shannon Ferrante, which reveals the truth behind a TV-obsessed woman’s interrogation at the local police station. Although the one-act play stars only two actors – Sarah Switanowski as Opal and Bryan Lark as Vito – the story unfolds with the help of a handful of other characters, all of whom are invisible (and silent) to the audience. So the trick is to make a two-way (or three-way) conversation with unseen and unheard characters believable. And amazingly, they do, as Ferrante has tightly staged every glance, every turn of the head and every vocal and physical reaction her actors deliver. As a result, Switanowski and Lark give possibly their best performances I’ve ever seen.
One of the most intriguing offerings of this year’s festival has to be “Fabula Rasa” by Joanna Hastings, directed by Jackie Strez. Hastings’ script is a surreal experience, which unfolds like a dream (read: nightmare) sequence. The play is populated by some very lyrical – if a bit nonsensical – dialogue and four challenging characters. In the director’s capable hands, “Fabula Rasa” bounds to life full of thoughtful choreography, clever costuming and makeup and bold characterizations. Central to the work’s success is the role of Archimedes Montezuma, who charts a broad emotional spectrum while leaving a performer in some very vulnerable positions. Todd Minnehan makes a confident showing in the work, and gets fine support from Christa Coulter, Joe Katrein and Bridget Michael. “Fabula Rasa” leans heavily towards the realm of experimental theater, but for those who like to step out of the proverbial box, it’s thought-provoking and packs a significant emotional punch.
Fresh from the recent presidential election comes “Something Called America,” a humorous satire about a televised presidential debate that morphs from the typical “answers-free” responses from the candidates to their deepest, darkest beliefs bubbling to the surface. Director Elaine Hendriks Smith has cast her show well, with two seemingly polar opposites for the candidates (Eric Maher as a smarmy and overly-groomed senator, and Andrea Scobie as a dykish, Hilary Clinton-esque governor). And you can’t help but pity moderator Gerrick Reidenbach, whose frustration and disbelief builds as the debate descends into madness.
Another festival highlight is the absurdist “Speed Dating” by Audra Lord. Three lonely and emotionally damaged women go on a TV reality show to find a date, but their expectations are dashed by the equally damaged men they encounter. Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates’ vision is nicely executed by six actors who deliver a wide range of intriguing, well-developed characters. (Morgan Chard will especially break your heart, while Lisa Mellin will bust your balls just as easily. And Dave Davies gets laughs without having to say a word.) The pace is brisk, but the script could use some judicious trimming.
A wonderful character study staged by Alison Christy opens Box 4. “Life as We Knew It” by Jake Christensen and Alexis Cain finds two sisters (Katie Galazka and Kelly Rossi) at a psychiatrist’s office confronting their different reactions to their father’s recent death. I saw this play twice (and sat on opposite sides of the house), and a brief directorial decision bothered me both times: a movement downstage by the shrink that blocks parts of the audience from observing the reactions of one of the sisters during a critical conversation.
Not even the delicious Jessalyn Brooks could improve the “Big Game” by Molly Thomas. Direction by Diviin Huff is lackluster, and the action – a married couple argues over scheduling the conception of their baby – utilizes far too much of the space than it should have. (Either their living/family room is devoid of furniture, or they live in a mansion!) Plus, it seemed the least rehearsed of all the shows.
Another gem is the heavenly “Squisher’s Atonement” by Jacquelyn Priskorn. A recently deceased (and now disoriented) woman (Linda Rabin Hammell) suddenly finds herself in heaven’s waiting room. It’s a delightful comedy with plenty of twists and turns, and a web of fine performances by Hammell, Christa Coulter and Robert Hotchkiss. Direction by Molly McMahon couldn’t be better.
“Strip Club” by Kristen Wagner is every stripper’s nightmare: What if your parents showed up to show their support for your new job? Director Linda Rabin Hammell shows a new and gutsy side of herself with this brief, but funny endeavor that stars Kelly Rossi as the embarrassed stripper. Even the set change that opens the performance is fun to watch!
“Vaccination” by Lori Eaton is rooted firmly in day-to-day reality. In this weighty short, the audience finds mother and daughter discussing the necessity of HPV vaccination. Director Trudy Mason has perfectly captured the parent/teenager dynamic, allowing the awkwardness of “the talk” to shine through in flashes of natural humor. It’s a very timely piece, not only for its reference to new vaccines targeting teens, but also for its modern take on sexuality – mother is cautiously willing to admit to premarital encounters, while daughter speaks pointedly about a desire to abstain. Much to Mason’s credit, Barbie Amann Weisserman and Nicole Coven deliver vividly realistic performances. “Vaccination” is one of this year’s most serious offerings, but it’s also one of its most poignant.
Jacquelyn Priskorn’s “Fan-C-Cuts” is a lighthearted and whimsical glance at the everyday lives of fairytale princesses. The play has a unique charm, but it lacks significant humor and dramatic purpose. And, though it boasts the largest cast of any “BoxFest” production this year, none of its actresses stand out for a particularly inspired performance. Likewise, director Angie Ferrente’s touch is sufficient, but feels a bit generic in the company of such innovative and imaginative peers.
“Lesbians,” written and directed by “BoxFest” executive director Kelly Rossi, employs a clever device to intensify its emotion: near total darkness. In this tale of two sisters with a strained relationship and an unusual family life, Rossi uses carefully selected language and pushes her two-woman cast to deliver it with solid conviction. The emphasis on the aural impact of theater is unique, in that it takes audiences through a wide range of emotion without relying on body language and other visual cues. In “Lesbians,” this approach works delightfully, specifically because of strong dialogue deliveries by Shannon Ferrante and Lyndsay Michalik. Lesser talents might struggle performing in a format that amounts to tying one hand behind the back, but this production is a keeper.
In “Coffee House Boos,” audiences will find a well-polished and tight production – perfectly suited to the late night time slot at The Planet Ant or The Ringwald. Like “Fan-C-Cuts,” “Boos” is also by Jacquelyn Priskorn, but this script is built around much bolder characters, and it has a steep dramatic arch. Director Rachel Bellack has a tight grip on both the characters of this work and its message. With little back story, she’s nevertheless able to establish characters and their relationships with thoughtful, well-executed costumes and props. Moreover, her casting for the production is spot-on. Alex Hill, Dyan Bailey, Joe Comaianni and Richelle Walsh share a common exuberance and an easy comedic chemistry. Bellack’s touch brings out the little details that make for expressive and funny performances, channeling her performers’ energies into a cohesive production, in which every gesture, movement and line is met appropriately by everyone on stage. The result is fun, plain and simple.
BoxFest 2008 winner Lyndsay Michalik returns to direct a fun and inspired work by Andy Orscheln. “Dodging the Bullet” is a clever account of a fictitious story based around Harry Houdini. The work is dominated by male characters (Michalik plays the only female), but all roles are performed by women. And it’s this aspect that makes the production work above all else: Michalik has created great caricatures of men out of good actresses. Moreover, she’s also given the work a sharp look with well-planned costumes, smooth choreography (including some fun pantomime, a hallmark of Michalik’s direction) and a nice integration of sound design and movement. Her direction feels rather traditional, but it’s very well executed, and coupled with this fun script and fine performers, it’s excellent. “Dodging the Bullet” is a solid reminder of why Michalik won last year’s scholarship, and is of a caliber that just might win her another.
‘BoxFest Detroit ’09’
At The Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday through Aug. 22. $10. 734-552-7535. For a complete schedule of plays: http://www.boxfestdetroit.com.