The ten-minute play is a tricky little beast. Within strict time constraints, the playwright has to write a whole play: a full story featuring interesting characters who experience conflict, complications and some kind of change – all in ten minutes or less. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s also a relatively low-risk platform for theater companies to try out lots of new material.
The annual Ten-Tucky Festival opened last night at The Bard’s Town. The resident theatre company received more than 100 submissions from Kentucky writers this year, producing full productions of eight in the festival (through September 22) and presenting staged readings of eight more (September 21-22; 5 p.m., free).
On opening night, this year’s produced plays felt more like an evening of sketches than fully-realized plays. Given the brief format, comic ten-minute plays do run the risk of wandering into sketch comedy territory. Maybe the difference in the two forms is academic, but to me, they’re not interchangeable.
New plays are delicate things. While all eight Ten-Tucky plays all have promise, none felt quite ready for a successful premiere. They all needed something significant, like a workshop to strengthen the writing, or more experienced direction, or simply a longer rehearsal period to work out some acting kinks.
The first play of the evening was also the strongest. J.R. Greenwell’s “Out of the Closet” is a gender- and sexual-identity comedy sketch built around a joke about former Hollywood Squares personality Paul Lynde. Director Scot Atkinson really worked the absurd tone of this piece, and the manic emotional swings of the actors (Kent Carney, Sean Keller, Megan Brown, Mandee McKelvey) paid off in big laughs and genuine surprise. The central joke isn’t all that great, but cast and director do pull it off with gusto.
Brian Walker’s “Threesome” is more of a traditional play, directed by Ben Gierhart. A belligerent middle-aged straight woman (Sharon Becher) takes shelter in her gay neighbors’ basement during a tornado and has to answer for her past behavior toward the couple (Brian West and Patrick Brophy). Walker is an experienced playwright, and his work (“Great American Sex Play,” “Dirty Sexy Derby Party,” “The Friend Factory”) is usually more exciting and infused with an oddball sense of humor than this straightforward, predictable offering. This one has potential, but for a natural disaster play, the whimpering end needed more of a bang. Stronger direction could have made up for that by bringing out more nuanced performances from the cast.
Bill Forsyth’s “Properly Served” is a gentrification comedy depicting a stand-off between an elderly woman (Carol T. Williams) and the mayor (Tony Smith) and real estate developer (Corey Music) who want her out of her house so they can demolish her block for a high-priced condo project. Directed by Amy Steiger, the staging on this one is fairly strong, but while Forsyth’s script has well-communicated stakes, the way they play out alternates between maudlin and improbable (spoiler alert: Williams is not convincing with a gun).
Act one ends with Mark Cornell’s “The Rental Company,” a darkly comic sketch about a profane car rental agent (Chris Petty) with some strange rules for his customers (“In case of gunfire, you have to stay with the car.”) A timid man (Scott Goodman) wants to rent a car to visit his kid for Christmas. His transaction is interrupted by the agent’s irate girlfriend (April Singer), and things go awry. The timing in this one is solid all around, but in a post-Mamet theatrical world, a play is going to need more than inventive profanity to make it work. Director J.P. Lebangood needed to mine the script for a stronger arc for Goodman for the ending to pay off.
Act two opens with Ben Unwin’s “Hunting Jackalopes,” a bizarre allegory sketch that starts out exploring gender roles in hipster relationships and ends in an inchoate mess. Director Nadeem Zaman keeps the pace brisk and timing tight, and principals Megan Brown (Whit) and April Singer (Steph) work themselves to the bone to make sense of this revenge fantasy on lame boyfriends (Corey Music, Patrick Brophy) that’s interrupted by a group of quasi-Mounties with no real purpose, but the take-away: funny gags, very little purpose.
Veteran playwright Nancy Gall-Clayton’s “A Trip to Eden” is built on an intriguing premise: a contemporary woman (Amy Steiger) travels back in time to the Garden of Eden to have a conversation with Eve (Polina Abramov). There’s an Apple iPhone / fruit of knowledge pun happening here that works the “there’s an app for that” joke to a frayed edge. While the premise is strong, the conflict between the two women doesn’t really go anywhere. Directed by Hallie Dizdarevic.
Gary Wadley’s “A Day on the Savannah” has everything: a squabbling couple on safari (Michael K. Smith, Megan Brown), talking birds (Talia Brown, Ben Gierhart with a strong showing), and a Deux ex Machina ending (that’s when a god-like character is lowered onto the stage to impose an artificial intervention on a human drama) featuring the reliable Tony Smith as a mysterious agent. Directed by Melinda Crecelius, this comedy doesn’t quite know what it wants to be – an allegory about our place in the natural world? A commentary on contemporary relationships? A theme park satire? There’s a lot packed into ten pages that might benefit from the breathing room a full one-act could provide.
The evening ends with Patrick Wensink’s “That One Time Eric Clapton Sold His Soul to the Devil.” Directed by Corey Music, this one is exactly what it sounds like – no less, and no more. Wensink’s short plays are usually more layered than this straightforward sketch about loathsome guitarist Eric Clapton (Scot Atkinson, with an appropriately awful haircut) signing away his eternal soul to a sexy Satan (Narina Kasabova) over a plate of meatballs. Clapton hates the Beatles and himself – nothing we can’t get behind, but the script allows for few surprises. This one would be more fun as an improv prompt.