Short but not always light
Barrington Stage Co.'s 10x10 New Play Festival balances comedy and drama
PITTSFIELD — "Charlottesville."
The title of one of the 10 short plays in Barrington Stage Company's 2019 10x10 New Play Festival may have once evoked a thriving, lively college town home to a top public university. But recently, the Virginia city has been shorthand for an ugly weekend in U.S. history characterized by racism and bigotry. Playwright Suzanne Bradbeer's work doesn't dodge this new connotation. In the Charlottesville native's 10-minute play, a mother is faced with whether or not her son participated in a far-right rally of white supremacists and white nationalists that led to counterprotester Heather Heyer's death and dozens of injuries in August 2017.
"That's a question that's in the air," Bradbeer said.
It's a weighty one for the 10x10 New Play Festival, the annual 10x10 Upstreet Arts Festival's anchor program. The festival's format of 10 roughly 10-minute plays often features a healthy number of sketches.
"I love this play because I think it's a play that is very relevant to today," said BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd, who is directing the production. "We don't always get relevant plays. We get a lot of wonderful comedies because we want people to have a good time. And this is both entertaining and relevant."
Bradbeer's work has been presented before at the festival, which will run this year from Feb. 14 to March 10 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
"I love the compactness and focus of the 10-minute form. I think a good 10-minute play is like a jewel and I love the way Barrington Stage does their 10x10 Festival — using a company of six actors to perform all the plays," Bradbeer wrote in an email. "It's a delight to see the exuberance of the very talented company as they launch themselves into one short piece after another; these plays are often wildly divergent in subject, tone and genre."
This year's crop of actors includes returnees Keri Safran, Peggy Pharr Wilson and Robert Zukerman. Wilson has performed in every 10x10 New Play Festival and was cast as the mother, Dani, in "Charlottesville." In the play, Dani is fishing when her daughter, Carrie Anne (Keri Safran), begins raising questions about the whereabouts of her brother, Seth (10x10 newcomer Michael Fell), during the infamous rally. On Wednesday afternoon, the group did a table read at Barrington Stage's North Street headquarters, delving into characters' interactions and motivations. Afterward, Wilson grabbed a fishing rod and began practicing how to wield it a safe distance from audience members.
Down the hall, Matthew Penn was leading 10x10 first-timers Sarah Goeke and Deshawn Mitchell in a rehearsal of "Kid Stuff" by Chris Shaw Swanson, another work heavy on nuance. It examines parents' reactions to their son's unexpected artwork.
"They're looking for something bad instead of looking for something good. I think that's a little strange mini-theme, that people are looking for the negative rather than the positive," said Boyd, who is splitting directorial duties with Penn for the third year.
"Double Entendre" by L.H. Grant explores language and gender in today's world.
"What are we free to say, what aren't we free to say and how do people take it?" Boyd said of the questions the work explores.
Detailing a man's quest to return an artificial Christmas tree on Dec. 26, "Twas the Day After Xmas" by Steven Korbar exemplifies the comedy often seen in 10-minute plays.
"That is a pure sketch," Boyd said.
The festival's other plays are "172 Push-Ups" by Scott Mullen, "The Chapel Play" by Lila Rose Kaplan, "Organic Seed" by Patrick Gabridge, "Eddie and Edna" by Donald Loftus, "Pipeline" by Michael Brady and "Cold Feet" by Brad Sytsma. The selections were culled from about 200 submissions, according to Boyd.
"Some years, people are more serious than others. Some years, they think it's very funny. This year, it's a good balance between funny and being a little bit more serious," she said.
Before each set of plays, the actors perform an introductory piece.
"One year we did a takeoff on 'Hamilton.' One year we did the Mickey Mouse Club. It's always a surprise," Boyd said. "It's always something silly to get the audience to laugh."
The artistic director has noticed that the festival, now in its eighth year, draws younger spectators than productions in other seasons typically do.
"I think the short plays are more attractive to young people who are used to either television or video games or something like that," Boyd said. "I find the 10-minute play format is great to get people into the theater. You know why? If you don't like one of them, there's another one in 10 minutes."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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