The Packaging Changes, The Purpose Does Not

By Hayes, Calamia & Quinn

Taking various forms and moving through shifting locations for the better part of a decade, BoxFest Detroit 2013 once again demonstrates the festival's affinity for evolution by rolling with venue and schedule changes. Playing host for the first time is Detroit's Elizabeth Theater, an open-plan performance/bar space that generously suits the affable social component of this massive short-play festival.
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same, thanks in no small part to the dedication of the festival's longtime leadership. The highly visible Molly McMahon (artistic director) and Kelly Rossi (executive director) once again keep the machinery running, greeting patrons at the box office and personally introducing each programming "Box." Their focus (and that of new associate producer Carrie Morris) remains sharply attuned to the one constant of BoxFest Detroit – its mission to showcase and create opportunities for women directors.
This summer, 10 women of all experience levels have taken up the mantle, fitting a total of 11 brief plays into five discrete Boxes. (As always, an impressed tip of the hat to the creative staff that contributes to the design and swift execution of so many drastically different stagings and themes: stage manager Andaiye Spencer, assistant stage manager Andrew Sheldon, technical director Rollo Rollin, lighting designer Kevin Barron, and credited "jack of all trades" Jeff Fontecchio.)
McMahon and Rossi take pains to elucidate the role of the director in making a play, which this year expanded to include a short opening-night presentation and informal panel discussion. It's a pertinent education for an event whose most prestigious prize (directing a play of her choosing as part of Planet Ant Theatre's late-night series) is decided by audience vote, as well as a reminder of what a tremendous opportunity and hands-on learning experience this inclusive festival represents.
While BoxFest Detroit 2013 has contracted from three weekends to two, Thursday nights have been added to this year's schedule, rendering a similar number of total performances.
As in the past, each day of programming is engineered to feature a distinctive combination of Boxes. In order to meet the unique demands of reviewing an entire festival, divided its reviews among three critics over three days' time.

Box 1

It's rarely easy when a couple breaks up. But in Jacquelyn Priskorn's "Glass Slipper, Size 8 1/2," Ella (Joanna Bronson) copes by creating an imaginary, fairy-tale-like world in which the romance is still alive with her former lover Matt (Andrew Neil), who attends her needs as a Prince Charming-like stud. Reality intrudes, however, when roommate Sherilyn (Sarah Oravetz) returns home and insists the two of them go out together and hunt some real men to play with that evening. Will that help Ella get over Matt? And how will dream-world Matt feel about it?
With limited space and an even more limited budget, director Terie Spencer shows true imagination and creativity with this cute little production. The show's opening in "dream land" is nicely executed – kudos to "assistants Cierra Anthony and Maggie Smith for their work at various points throughout the show – and all three principles are relatable throughout. (Many appreciative murmurs were heard throughout the mostly female audience on opening night when Neil entered a scene shirtless – and with good reason.) This was my favorite of the four shows on opening night – and with some tightening of the line delivery in a few spots and maybe a slightly more romanticized Matt in yet another, this could be a likely contender for the best show of the festival.
An apparently powerful mystery man (Jim Snideman) sends a way-too-obvious agent into a gay bar trolling for – well, at first we don't know. A date, maybe? When the inexperienced field agent (Jaclynn Cherry) finds a potentially suitable "mark" (Matios Simonian) in "Heartland Votes" by Suzanne Bailie, well, the story takes a totally unexpected turn.
Why a short, three-character play required two directors I'm not sure, but what Megan Wright and Anna Castelaz missed was tight pacing to move the plot along. And some more insightful character development would help provide the audience with a deeper understanding of the relationship between the hunter and his prey.

– Donald V. Calamia

Box 2

A banner, a punch bowl, and attendees dressed to impress set the scene for "The Reunion" (written and directed by Ileah Mare). A 10-year high school reunion is enough to throw even the most successful alumnus off her game, as is the case for timid physicist Amber (Mare). Her reconnection with former friend and almost-flame Scott (Corderio Johnson) is fraught with uncertainty and supposition about what might have been. Mare uses bookending moments of music to illuminate Amber's longing, but the character's walls are otherwise too high for the apologetic Johnson to surmount. The play's time-capsule sense of returning to high school behavior is enlivened by the addition of Katie (Patrice Williams), textbook popular girl and enduring tyrant, but frequently stagnates in indulgently pregnant pauses and floor gazing.
Due to unforeseen scheduling difficulties, "24 Pictures of a Pilot" (by Holly Arsenault; directed by Sherrine Azab) could not be presented as part of the opening weekend lineup. The play will be included in all future Box 2 performances scheduled (Thursday and Saturday, August 8 and 10, both at 8PM), and will be additionally featured the night of Friday, August 9, after the already scheduled Boxes.

– Carolyn Hayes

Box 3

This box of three, very short vignettes celebrates the art of dialogue; each contains only two characters.
"Grapefruit Diet," written by Jen Bindeman and directed Lori Reece, is a sly little fable on the value of self-esteem. Zaftig Rachel (Kez Settle) is fair game for a motor mouth Announcer (Andy Gaitens), who's pushing a can't-fail weight loss regimen.
The energetic Settle plays the farce suitably broad and delivers choice bits of comedy both through intonation and body language. Gaitens brings a fine oiliness to his huckster, but a bundle of laughs abide in the outrageous business contract that playwright Bindeman created for the weight loss gimmick. The Announcer, as expected, rushes through the fine print but doesn't quite catch the proper cadence and emphasis to "sell" the zany material.
"Step," by Katherine Nelson, takes a grim turn towards spousal abuse. Mark (Nicholas La Grassa) wakens and begins kicking the bejeezus out of the sole object on stage, a mattress. It would seem the mattress on the lawn is the only possession that remains after a fire has totally destroyed the house. His wife, Luanne (Tricia Turek), returns sporting the black eye Mark had given her the night before. As husband and wife fill in the puzzle for the audience, we hear the tale of an unhappy, suspicion-filled marriage. Where does it go from here?
There is a definite pattern to the emotions in this play, and Emily Caffery hits each rise and fall just right. There's special appeal in experiencing the actors' subtle gestures, some angry, some consoling, that give depth to the spoken word.
Families can be divided by the most banal misunderstandings, and "Peaches," by Kelly Rossi, is a case study in familial dysfunction. Jules and Halie Peeks are cousins raised as sisters, yet each has taken her own road. Jules (Elizabeth Jaffe) is a rather intense bohemian, writing, but for her own amusement. Halie, played by the doubling-in-brass Kez Settle, has gone the mini-van mom route. The girls are somewhat estranged and defensive; there was an awkward falling out over, of all things, a peach pie that wasn't made of peaches.
This is definitely one of the messiest of BoxFest offerings, as heated words lead to thrown garbage. Yet director Amanda Ewing kept a firm hand on the tiller, and the visuals are compelling. It's a play with a moral: Communication is the key to conciliation, no matter what strange form that communication takes.

– John Quinn

Box 4

Box 4 opens with an interesting twist to an oft-told tale. In "Willerby vs Moses" by Todd Weston, a children's novelist (Andy Gaitens) on a promotional tour meets a fan (Todd Sheets) whose seemingly tragic life story has a happy ending thanks to his books. But an unexpected claim by the fan reveals a past that could jeopardize the novelist's highly successful and very lucrative franchise!
Despite a script with a handful of meaty twists and turns, director Megan Wright ignores its emotional beats and offers a very low-key and mostly dispassionate production in which the characters' expected responses are either muted or non-existent. And the pacing is very one-note. Of the four shows I watched on opening night, this was the least successful.
More enjoyable is "The Callback" by Kirsten Knisely – thanks to engaging performances and a script featuring a character most theater majors will likely recognize from their college days. A quirky and somewhat-aggravating theater student (Heather Woolweaver) auditions for the last show of the school year – for a role she thought she was perfect for. But when she fails to win the part – a repeat of what she had experienced all school-year long – she haunts its author (Patrick O'Connor Cronin) to reconsider.
Similar to "Willerby vs Moses," "The Callback" is a very talky script with very little action to keep an audience's attention. Except in the hands of director Molly McMahon, her decision to key into and have fun with her characters' polar opposite personalities sets the two shows apart. Although Woolweaver's Penny could easily chew away a person's last nerve, she does so with an energy and sweetness that totally disarms her "victim" – and thereby creates a character you can't help but like. And Cronin once again excels at the socially awkward geek. So as a result, the ebbs and flows of the plot don't need much movement around the stage to keep the audience focused; the characters' personalities as constructed by McMahon and her actors do the heavy work for us. And that, in turn, puts this show in contention for best of the festival.

– Donald V. Calamia

Box 5

Opening Box 5 is a fantasy that needs some historical context. Nat Turner organized a Virginia slave rebellion in August 1831. There were 55 white and some 100 black deaths. Upon their capture, Turner and some of his followers were tried, convicted and put to death. Todd Weston's "The Crimes of Nat Turner as Told to an Archangel" begins at that point, when Missy Turner (Hassae Maria) finds herself in "the place before the Place" and confronting the Archangel Gabrielle (not Gabriel; that was a biblical misprint), played by the statuesque Ariel Jones. Rather than plead her own case for salvation, Missy defends her brother Nat's decisions.
There is a pageant-like feel to Megan Wright's direction that gives an out-of this-world aura to the play. While the two performances are well balanced, this is clearly Missy's story, and her impassioned defense of her brother leaves little for Nat Turner (Anton Bassey) to say when it's his turn before his judge. For a piece of historical fantasy, "Nat Turner" is eerily contemporary, as it explores the oft-repeated adage, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
The collapse of a 35-year marriage is the scene of "Bless You," by Paige Vanzo. Joan (Holly Portman) has prepared one last breakfast for her husband, Charlie (James Cooper), who is leaving her for a younger man. To what lengths will Joan go to keep the husband for whom she has cared over the years? The answer is chilling.
Director Kennikki Jones-Jones deftly handles the raw emotions portrayed in the script. If you are fortunate to see a lot of Detroit theater, you will see her work again and again and it simply gets better and better. It would not be a spoiler to point out an inspired bit of stage business. Each actor, in turn, takes out stage makeup and "ages" the other. This silent act shouts a loud statement about the couple's marriage.

– John Quinn

‘BoxFest Detroit 2013'
BoxFest Detroit at The Elizabeth Theater, 2040 Park Ave., Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 8-9 and 3 p.m. & 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10. Approximately 50 minutes per Box. $5-30.


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