8 Tens @ 8 “B”

By Philip Pearce

NIGHT “B” of 8 Tens @ 8, the annual Santa Cruz theater festival, served up a more interesting variety of characters, situations and viewpoints than Night “A” did. This second batch of winning scripts takes a look, sometimes satirically, sometimes not, at art, science, life, death, the supernatural, petty crime and labor disputes. 

Love at the Louvre by Dianne Sposito links the Mona Lisa (a charming and optimistic Sarah Marsh) and a re-armed and towel-wrapped Venus de Milo (Sophia Alexander-Sidhoun, all opinionated tizzie and sparkle). The girls take a break from their work spaces during museum closing hours to chat about art, artists and the works they produce. Having concluded that it boils down to love, Mona Lisa returns to her frame, Venus to her pedestal. The versatile Marsh reappears in Where’s This Train Going?, that being the question that breaks the ice between her and the tidy, preoccupied guy (Nic Terbeek) seated next to her in a Manhattan subway car. As charming and outgoing as ever, she explains she’s a wide-eyed first-time visitor to the Big Apple and loves meeting new people. Bruce Guelden’s funny and sharply plotted parable reminds us that you can’t always believe everything you’re told. 

Gwen Flager’s Jornada Del Muerto is kind of like Tennessee Williams on an off night. In spite of some good acting by Tara McMilin as a bag lady and Austin Bruce as the broken down drag queen she helps to die with dignity, I found it confused and pretentious. 

There’s sharp satire in two other plays. The Greyback Payback pits Steve Capasso as a carpenter named Eddie who doesn’t say so but probably voted for Trump against Scott Kravitz as a man named Neil who probably didn’t.   Eddie says Neil has failed to pay up for a roofing job he did for him; Neil insists he has paid. They put their dispute to arbitration conducted by Gail Borkowski. Author Mark Saunders uses the arbitration hearing to structure a pleasing odd couple confrontation that’s full of laughs sprinkled with social class implications and some unexpected revelations.

Even better as a piece of comic irony is Brian Spencer’s The Rug (photo above.) A lad named Jerry (Eli McMilin) girds his loins for the painful challenge of coming out to his stridently conventional Mom (Tara McMilin again). It’s a predictable enough situation these days, but Spencer pulls the rug out from under us when we discover the closet Jerry is coming out of is located in an alternative universe where the main controversial horror is Loving Opera. The hilarious, hard-hitting script provides the troubled son and his hysterical mom with attitudes that mirror present-day anti-gay arguments and rhetoric. The satire is deepened by the fact that a disagreement about Maria Callas between Jerry and another opera lover from his support group has resulted in the man’s corpse being stuffed under Jerry’s living room carpet. But that’s a situation Jerry and Mom both regard as little more than a minor inconvenience compared to the burning issue of opera addiction. Widespread laughter and outbursts of enthusiastic applause made it clear that at this first B Night of the festival The Rug was audience favorite.

I liked it a lot but my personal favorite of the evening was Mike McGeever’s poignant and enigmatic Frameworks. Marie (Camille Russell), an intense and brainy university science major, misses her subway train and tries to avoid the puzzling advances, questions and comments of a strange man named Gabe (Scott Kravitz) who’s the only other person on the platform. She is puzzled that, with no evident local academic qualifications, Gabe seems to know more than makes sense not only about her field of study—physics—but about her name and identity. Is he an over-educated pervert coming onto her for sex? or some self-taught nut-case obsessed with quantum physics and the theory of relativity? Questions move by unanswered, mysteries multiply, and not just for onstage characters at Center Stage, Santa Cruz.  

The humanist implications of quantum physics and the theory of relativity are subjects Mike McGeever writes about with Stoppardesque confidence. Their far reaching realities intrigue but still baffle me. But I took heart on Saturday when it began to look as if a healthy diet of doubt and mystery was part of what Frameworks was driving at. Gabe kept implying that in life as in science you need to keep reframing what you think you know in a way that makes you see it from a whole new angle. And just to prove his point, in the final seconds of the action, everything moved out of scientific speculation into the realm of supernatural faith, familiar superstition or provocative possibility, depending on your point of view. 

I like plays that raise questions you’re still asking yourself instead of knowing all about it as you drive home and Frameworks is one of them. 

B Night 2019 begins and ends with two intimate, focused pieces, each about how a pair of closely connected people face up to the deep differences in their personalities and attitudes. In Simon Hunt’s ReRun uptight bookish and cultured Sean (neatly acted by Nic Terbeek) challenges younger brother Tim (a strident yet sympathetic Eli McMilin) about his “so what?“ addiction to comic books and video games. They bicker, accuse and justify, find some previously unsuspected nuances and decide to continue agreeing to disagree. In the quiet, elegiac What’s Left Over, an unnamed man and women sit on a park bench and reflect back on the peaks and pitfalls of their long relationship.  Calm and still affectionate, they agree it’s time to end their marriage. True to Eileen Valentino Flaxman’s text, Avondina Wills and Sarah Cruse bring a satisfying evening to a close on a note of a calm assurance free of any hint of tear jerking or sentimentality.  

The festival continues through February 3rd.

Photo by Jana Marcus

8 Tens @ 8

By Philip Pearce

ACTORS’ THEATRE’S 8 Tens @ 8 Short Play Festival is an annual crowd-pleaser at Center Stage, Santa Cruz. Now that 8 Tens has doubled its output to 16 plays over two successive nights, labeled A and B, the festival seems, among other benefits, to be inviting some new fans to crowd in beside those of us who annually check in to watch fresh stage material from writers all over the USA.  

This year’s Night A opened the festival last Friday with an emphasis on comedies, themes ranging from the bumpy road to romantic love, to inter-generational conflict, to the joys of getting even with that guy or gal who’s done you dirt.

It started with Greg Atkins’ provocative romantic science fiction farce Tempus Fugit. Is there anyone out there who hasn’t looked regretfully back at one or more youthful blunders and thought, “If only I had known then what I know now?” So a futuristic charmer named Cynthia, living in the year 2039, time-travels back twenty years to warn an amiable bachelor named Gary against the disastrous blunder of proposing to–you guessed it–the feckless and promiscuous girl our Cynthia used to be back in 2019.  

But the future Cynthia’s warnings keep halting while she hides whenever the present day Cynthia shows up at Gary’s place. Best plotted of all the “A” scripts, Tempus Fugit takes on the frantic pace of a French farce as director Cathy Warner connives brilliantly with the three-member cast and an un-credited costume designer to work lightning-quick costume and hairdo changes as the two Cynthias (both played by the energetic and enchanting Alie Mac) narrowly avoid meeting one another. Nat Robinson is pure gold as the hopeful but beleaguered Gary and Solange Marcotte deserves a medal for briefly doubling with her face conveniently and logically covered at moments when both Cynthias are on stage at once. Sound like fun? It is. And kind of a pity that this opening number turns out to be the best item in the whole A Night program.  

Geriatric romance gets a once-over in Rod McFadden’s aptly named The Dating Game. Seventy-something widow Marge (Helene SimkinJara) offers some pretty good jokes about the tortures of granny-aged online dating and Sheryl Loomis is sprightly and helpful as an old schoolmate named Nettie who urges Marge not to give up her extended cyber search for Mister Right. The acting is fine, the outcome happy, but blandly predictable. 

Things are more romantically acid and barbed as the busy Nat Robinson returns in Act 2 as an office worker named Simon in Richard Lyons Conlon’s Jackson, so called because that’s whose image appears on the twenty-dollar bill Simon’s fellow office worker Pauline finds missing from her desk top when she returns from the ladies’ room. Jocelyn McMahon’s feisty Pauline shouts and spars with energetic skill and seems to win in her efforts to pin the theft on a guy she has dumped after a brief office romance. But closing moments suggest she may not, after all, have actually won their Tracy-Hepburn battle of the sexes. It’s a lively and well-acted romp.   

Steven Capasso’s Gossip Queens is also about getting even. Three East Coast Mafia widows study fellow mourners at a funeral, pick out some people who have done them wrong and discuss payback. Joyce Michaelson, Hannah Eckstein and Rachel Newman have a lot of fun exercising their New Joisey dialect skills as the three mature, fast talking molls.  

William J Royce’s Morning in America got the biggest opening night laugh when retiree Charley (the artful Marcus Cato) opened the play by confronting his daughter Gayle (Alie Mac again) with the anguished question, “Is he still president?” Nobody in cast, script or audience needed to ask who Charley was referring to. John Chandler’s Jello Salad is also about parent-child conflict as Gino Danna, Solange Marcotte and Sheryl Loomis work hard to inject life into a script about a black sheep uncle’s efforts to help his teen-aged niece rebel against their hidebound family. It’s a hopeful idea but the characters, as written, lack either the charm or the chutzpa that would make us care much about their struggles.

Heaps better as a tale of child-parent conflict, Frodo Lives by Elizabeth Flanagan opens with the arresting central image of a full-scale flush toilet over which Claudia (Nicolette Nasr) and son Sam (talented newcomer Tristan Ahn) cover a lot of interesting inter-generational territory as they argue the best social, religious and ecological way of flushing Sam’s late lamented goldfish Frodo down the cistern. Kind of a shame the title gives away the surprise ending!        

The evening closes with The Birthday Gift, (above photo) a diverting family comedy in which married couple W Scott Whisler and Joyce Michaelson celebrate daughter Jocelyn McMahon’s 21st birthday by presenting her with the keys to a truck big enough to pack all her stuff in and the news that an architect friend is converting the family home into a collapsible mini-house suitable for the two of them to take on extended up-market European tours, or use for yoga retreats or a newly liberated sex life carried on without inhibitions or underwear.   

The 2019 selection of A-Night plays is well acted, astutely directed, tastefully mounted and generally entertaining. But I missed the focus and realism that have marked some previous years’ selections as meaningful enough to be worth a second visit.

Photo by Jana Marcus