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Tense Present

Clever Series Of One-Acts Don’t Transcend Mere Cleverness

THE LAY OF THE LAND: (from left) Richard Peck and Janise Whelan do a quick take on loss in “Memory Garden.”

By John Barry | Posted 7/12/2006

The Past is Present

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through July 23

The past is present. That’s the title of the latest series of Baltimore Playwrights Festival one-acts, and it makes perfect sense. In fact, that is what theater is all about. If nothing is happening onstage—that is, if the play is stuffed with exposition and asides—the play needs serious tweaking. So it’s a fair standard: Are these plays taking place in the present tense? Is the audience being challenged? And is the playwright, in his or her own way, actually redefining the present tense?

This question is approached, more or less, by four of the festival’s most prolific playwrights: Rich Espey, Mark Scharf, Kimberly Lynne, Joe Dennison, and, in part, the recently deceased Carol Weinberg. They confront shifts in time zones, death, and journeys backward in time.

But before moving on the particulars, it should be noted that seven one-acts—technically four, with one divided into three parts—in one night is a stiff drink for any audience. All the one-acts were short, but they rarely ran less than 15 minutes. That left the final two or three plays at a distinct disadvantage, as audience members began to file out gradually. With 20-minute plays, four should be the limit.

The first offering, “Willie Baby”—written by Lynne, Weinberg, and Dennison—is based on the interesting premise of the Bard’s agent (Patrick Martyn) coming back to the Mobtown Theater and demanding royalties from theater members (Mike Moran and Debbie Bennett) for their six performances of Shakespeare. Anyone involved in the local theater scene certainly appreciates the inside joke: like most Baltimore nonprofit theaters, the Mobtown is hanging on for dear life financially. Being asked for $40,000 in back royalties is the final indignity. It also references several of the superstitions and ceremonies of all actors and directors: For instance, when the word “MacBeth” is uttered, the actors engage in a strange dance. It would be a little harsh and humorless to criticize the play for being unrealistic. It’s light, funny, and thin. That’s probably all it was meant to be.

The next two plays, both written by Scharf, involve mourning. In the first, “Memory Garden,” Angie (Janise Whelan), a bereaved wife, tends the garden around her husband’s memorial marker. Her husband’s motorcycle crashed into the rear of an SUV. The driver of the SUV (Richard Peck) arrives on the scene. In the next play, “Wilderness,” Spencer, an old man, watches his garden explode with weeds. His spouse too has died. A neighbor, Margaret, tries to convince him to cut the grass. Spencer resists resolutely. The two plays are certainly related thematically—almost to the point where it’s a little hard to understand why they were placed back to back.

The three-part series of vignettes “The Miss Alice Plays,” by Espey, opened with the shortest and the best offering of the evening. A young couple (Jennifer Mikulski and Josh Waters), on the way to visit the parents, gets caught in a squabble as they take the train through the suburbs of Philadelphia. The young man has come up with a mnemonic device to remember the series of stops that the train passes through. His young wife challenges his choice of words, and in a clever display of wordsmithing, Espey manages to create a spat between the two in which each line begins with the same letter as the current stop.

Espey should have stopped while he was ahead. Another offering, also featuring Mikulski and Waters, involves a twentysomething young man at a reunion of his kindergarten class. The young man’s speech impediment prevents him from speaking words over five letters—and one syllable—in length. It’s clever, but after the earlier play the device wears thin.

And Espey’s final vignette also involves a familiar premise: a lonely woman telemarketer (Debbie Bennett) calls a young man (Kevin McCray) and tries to get him to renew a magazine subscription. It’s soon revealed that the woman has accessed most of the information on his personal life.

Despite several interesting premises and some good performances, the past was not, by the end of the evening, present. That may be because the evening had the aura of a workshop, and not necessarily a festival. Festivals celebrate diversity; these playwrights were all too familiar to Baltimore’s theater scene. That may not be anyone’s fault: Baltimore is a small city, and these are prolific and skilled playwrights. But variety is the spice of life.

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