E.S.T.'s Festival of One-Acts: Series C is Mostly Compelling

Ensemble Studio Theatre bills itself as "The Major Forum for One-Act Plays in America." Having not surveyed too many of the minor forums, I can't necessarily second it. But if its 28th Festival of One-Act Plays "Series C" is any indication, the company can pride itself on presenting intriguing work by artists more than skilled in the craft of one-act playwriting-and even the writing of musicals.

There are five short plays included in "Series C," and four of them succeed. Yet the belle of this theatrical ball might just be Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore's The Bus to Buenos Aires-you guessed it, the musical. Based on Fernando Sanchez Sorondo's short story Las Hermanas de Javier Wiconda, it's an evocative piece in which whimsy and woe are deftly balanced by its talented creators. It also has a lovely flamenco-tinged score that would beg a cast recording if it were a few songs longer.

Paulo Wiconda (Sebastian LaCause) is going home to Buenos Aires, where he had five years earlier left his three sisters. Paulo had not only sought to escape the clamor of the city, but to exorcise the memory of Santiago, the murdered lover of his sister Cynthia (Whitney Bashor)-who had also been his close friend and a victim of political oppression. Along the way, a sort of Greek chorus comprised of sisters Cynthia, Luisa (Jessica Carter) and Teresa (Jennie Eisenhower) appears before him on the bus to ask-which one is dead, and which is the reason he is heading home to pay his respects? The three invite him to deal with impending grief by imagining the death of each.

Director Carlos Armesto moves the women like wraiths among the minimal set-but doesn't let the proceedings turn too somber. Each of the women has a solo describing her possible demise. The highlights are Teresa's funny and cleverly-rhymed song of expiring amid Cervantes and Dante as "the martyr of the biblioteca," and Cynthia's haunting song of mourning, "The Day That I Died." Of the three women, Bashor gives the strongest performance, although LaCause (looking muy Latino) doesn't quite sound the depths of Paulo's pain and alienation.

The title of

The Night That Roger Went to Visit the Parents of His Old High School Girlfriend, by Ann Marie Healy, is only partially a plot summary of her funny and somewhat unsettling play. The nerdy young Roger (Jack Carpenter) pays a call on the parents of his supposed high school sweetheart only to learn that she has died and her parents don't seem to recall him. Her parents learn things too-that their daughter liked to paint and "upturn history" in her poems, including one ode to Betsy Ross.

Healy mischievously pokes at the audience's perceptions. Are the parents really learning anything new about their daughter, and if not, why are they believing these things? The one-act's scenes are punctuated with nervy piano music; director Andrew McCarthy gives it a somewhat cinematic feel. It feels like an absurdist drawing room comedy, with the kind of whiplash switch from despair to hilarity that one associates with Christopher Durang. The heart of the piece is most embodied in Daniel Gerroll's performance as the father, as very real emotions of grief and confusion flicker across his face throughout the more comic episodes.

Michael Louis Wells' Detail doesn't quite fare as well. Although there are some provocative patches, the characters' speech is of the kind of forced hyper-literary manner that works on the page but falls flat on the stage-you know, where every line is not only a jewel of the playwright's wisdom, but impeccably framed in its wording.

In it, young academic Madeleine (stridently played by Dana Powers Acheson) sits in a bar with brother Wayne (John Leonard Thompson). Wayne is a hot New York artist whose hipness is attested to by his poverty-and by his angst. He stubbornly refuses to go back home with Madeleine due to resentment aimed at his mother.

Wells does have talent as a writer (the characters are fairly well-drawn), but the play has certain details that evoke the wrong kind of wonder. Madeleine is in grad school for Women's Studies (can you sense where this is going?), and has long since come to terms with the "secret" she's hiding from her brother. Then why has she waited so long to tell him-when one of his earlier lines makes it clear that he would have been the first to understand it? It's an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, piece.

Lila on the Wall, by Edward Allen Baker, is the best of the plays. It runs along the familiar lines of "idiot savant enters the life of hardened cynic and restores his/her faith in humanity," but it's also a stirring little fable. Newscaster Lila (Julie Leedes) is handed a 3-months old story about a woman who saw Jesus' face on a grafitti-laden wall-the trouble is the woman who saw it is off on tour in Italy and the cameraman (who prides himself of figuring out "emotional landscapes") is determined to make Lila believe in something again.

That the play turns out inspiring rather than maudlin is partially due to the strength of the punchy, honest writing and to Leedes' and Will Janovitz's performances as Lila and as cameraman Carl. Leedes convincingly shows a core of fragility beneath her character's armor and Janovitz is endearingly hilarious as cockeyed optimist Carl.

Stephen Adly Guirgis's Dominica: The Fat, Ugly 'Ho, breezily directed by playwright Adam Rapp, might be described as a hip-hop Cyrano de Bergerac--

though its hero has a normal nose and its poetry is more of the four-letter word variety.

It also has a slight touch of Romeo and Juliet--only one lover has stabbed the other.

The feisty Juliet isn't Dominica, but Mylene (Liza Colon Zayas), who is being courted by the sheepish and somewhat sincere Rolando (Carlo Alban)-to the words of friend Carlos (Dominic Colon). Mylene dealt the blow over the question of Rolando's perceived infidelity with the title 'ho. Guirgis' street-smart writing is extremely funny, and the play is even a little touching-though with an unsentimental twist. It ends "Series C" on a high note-in an evening in which only a few sour ones have been sounded.

Photos by Carol Rosegg
1--Jennie Eisenhower, Sebastian LaCause, Jessica Carter and Whitney Bashor in The Bus to Buenes Aires
2--Patricia Kalember and Daniel Gerroll in The Night That Roger Went to Visit the Parents of his Old High School Girlfriend
3--Will Janovitz and Julie Leedes in Lila on the Wall

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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)

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