A Second Wave of One-Act Plays at The Artists’ Exchange

theatre1Ramping up the pace established by the pleasantly disjointed Wave One, The Artists’ Exchange continues its 8th Annual One Act Play Festival with a second wave of original short plays at the new black box space at 82 Rolfe Square. Where Wave One seemed a little hit or miss, Wave Two is a much more consistent affair, with more attention to production values, making these plays seem less like skits and more like fully realized works. Tom Chace mans the helm for most of these, lending a consistency of style, with two pieces directed by Kate Lester and David Tessier, respectively.

The first half kicks off with one of two plays authored by the ubiquitous Ben Jolivet. The Resurrectionists is a darkly funny buddy piece centering around two old friends who meet for a little tomb raiding but mostly discuss their directionless lives and failed dreams. It’s Clerks in a graveyard, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nick Viau and Alex Rotella establish an effortless rapport that almost sounds like improvisation at times and this bittersweet little piece peters off with the knowledge that nothing may change for these two, but it’s still been interesting to eavesdrop on their Tom and Huck stoner banter for a little while.

Jolivet’s second offering, Hair of a Dying Winter, is an interesting concept with a delightfully amusing performance by Barbara Murray-Johnson as a hostess whose dreams of the perfect Christmas party are dashed by an unexpected blizzard. The solution? Invite Winter herself to the failed bash (since she would obviously have no problem navigating the roads) and make the best of things. It’s a quirky little play right up until the last notes (with director Chace providing cocktail carols in the background) and might be a fair cautionary tale for all the anxious hosts who need to put down their issues of Martha Stewart Living and relax.

Greg Mandryk’s September in Biddeford starts slow, almost uncomfortably so, with a mother-daughter conversation on a porch that meanders through family issues in a humdrum manner (although, Mom is conspicuously smoking a bowl, which may or may not shed light on what follows) that goes on just long enough to allow us to write off the piece as trite and underdeveloped. Just when we start to doze, all hell breaks loose and the National Guard storms the beach to mount a desperate battle against killer mutant lobsters ( “…and they’re pissed off about the rubber bands!”). Really. Complete with mad scientist and meta-aware soldiers, this plucky group of defenders realizes that the only means of defeating the crustaceans is Lifetime TV-style overloads of estrogen. Really. So, mother and daughter are spurred on to greater catharsis about dad’s death and long lost lovers while Guardsman Jenner “mans the acoustic guitar.” And, lest we think that the lobsters remain outside of the fourth wall, we get to see one in all its glory (apparently pre-cooked) like something from a B movie outtake, crashing its way onshore for the kill. This is silly, clever fun that manages to send up several genres at once while keeping tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Mark Harvey Levine’s Workin’ on the Railroad closes the first half with a charming exercise in wordplay set in a saloon where the proprietor (a wonderful performance by Bob Macaux, who also pleases as the Scientist, McTavish in the preceding lobster war) and his customers, all converse in old-timey song lyrics. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly because we see the setups a mile away and are laughing before the punch lines even land, which is the point. Clearly an audience favorite, Workin’ winds up as one of the most solidly realized pieces of the evening.

The second half delves into weightier territory with the Kate Lester-directed Civilization, written by Jason Irwin. A slightly longer effort than the rest, Civilization attempts to pack hours of treatise into a small package and mostly succeeds. It’s a Mad Max world where Samuel Beckett reinterprets Pink Floyd’s Animals and throws three archetypes of the Western paradigm into a wasteland on the way to an elusive, and possibly illusory, paradise in the desert. Us and Them, the circular logic of history, the subjective nature of safety, love and conflict … it’s a lot to cover in a short tale, but Blanche Case, Alex Duckworth and John Carpenter grasp this slightly overwritten material with gusto and Lester’s direction keeps the tension high. Civilization is one of those works that seems custom-built for a post-show talkback and will play well in academic settings, but almost swallows its own tongue in this particular package.

The Alex Platt-penned Mercy Me is a beautifully crafted piece cleverly directed by Chace. What starts as a Stand by Me-type encounter with a dying dog tests the relationship of two boys who are forced to confront mortality. What could have been a simple tale fluidly evolves into a poignant and wonderfully delivered journey of continuing loss. David Kane gets to shine as the boy who grows to discover that questions of life and death do not get easier with age.

Colors, by Robin Stone, poses one question: what if art were deemed too subversive to exist and its mediums were classified as controlled substances? It’s a one-joke play, but still entertaining and Jim Shelton, who appears throughout the evening, gives his strongest performance here as a law officer who breaks up a shady deal by an underground “art dealer” selling contraband painting supplies (“if you like that sample, come back and I’ll get you some raw sienna”). Shelton’s monologue says what Stone wants to get across about the conservative backlash to freedom of expression, and while we’re not quite sure where any of Colors is going, it’s still fun to watch.

The closing piece, directed by David Tessier, borders on the insane and winds up as the evening’s most accomplished production in terms of design. Jeff Pothier’s lighting is used more effectively than in the first wave of shows and the set recreates a comic book store down to the tiniest details. Alex Rotella gives a bravura performance as a fabulously wealthy comic book geek who his reinvented himself, Kick Ass-style, into his favorite character, complete with costume and sound effects. Shrewman VS Shrew Man’s plot is almost irrelevant, but it includes plenty of (identically) masked heroes and villains (Zach Searle’s glasses over his mask is particularly genius) and a wickedly vaudevillian performance by Joe Mecca. Like or hate it, Shrewman ends with a kick line and a nod to a 70s superhero icon, so how bad could it be?

The second wave of One Acts at Artists’ Exchange is a strong collection of well-written, directed and performed pieces that are unlike anything else on RI stages at the moment. Running through August 4th at their Theatre 82 space, Wave Two delivers a vibrantly eclectic showcase of work that may have you questioning that next Christmas party – or at least if you should serve lobster.

Performances at 7 pm, Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Theatre 82, 82 Rolfe Square, Cranston, RI. Visit http://www.artists-exchange.org/oneactfest for more details and tickets.

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