Return to Gender

Playwright August Wilson was at Dartmouth College the other day, spouting off once again about why America needs a separate theater dedicated to the interests of African-Americans. White artists, Wilson has repeatedly argued, are simply ill-equipped to understand and interpret his Pulitzer- and Tony-award-winning plays about black life. It takes an African-American director, Wilson believes, to do justice to his richly drawn stories and characters.

In the past, Wilson's incendiary statements have been doused by buckets of cold commentary from white artists, among them Robert Brustein, artistic director of Boston's American Repertory Theatre, who, during a much-publicized debate last year said to Wilson, "You have the best mind of the seventeenth century." A handful of New York media hounds trumpeted the Wilson-Brustein wrangle as the theatrical event of the season. Most theatergoers just heaved a sigh of relief that the two men were even talking.

Which is more than can sometimes be said about the participants in another long-running main event: the battle of the genders. The Colorado Women Playwrights Festival means to address that inequity, albeit on a local level. Now in its second season under the sponsorship of Denver's Industrial Arts Theatre, the CWPF provides an environment in which female playwrights can work with directors to realize fully staged productions of their plays. This year the CWPF features one full-length and four one-act plays, running in two separate programs that play on alternate evenings. And while some of the playwrights demonstrate considerable potential, most of the fledgling authors would benefit from a few simple lessons in stagecraft--if for no other reason than to prevent future CWPF patrons from making the kind of disparaging remarks overheard at this year's festival.

"Maybe there's some deeper message that I don't get," a clearly confused audience member remarked as she exited the theater one night. At intermission the following evening, another patron put a similar query to anyone within earshot: "Do you know what's going on in this play?" No one was able to give him a straight answer. And as another of the festival's productions plodded on (both of the nightly programs last week started late and dragged on through interminable intermissions), an entire row of spectators reacted to each confusing plot development by exchanging sidelong glances, chuckling to themselves and shrugging their shoulders.

Clearly, things were not supposed to turn out this way. No one, not even a dadaist, writes a play in order to be deliberately misunderstood. But apart from a few fleeting moments when clarity of expression prevails, most of the current offerings serve only to muddy the waters of their respective subjects.

It isn't for lack of trying. As a matter of fact, the festival got off to an encouraging start on opening night with Judy GeBauer's one-woman playlet A Pair of Eyes, directed and performed by Kathryn Gray. Even though this story is only ten minutes long, GeBauer tries to make the most of every second. A waitress, Terry, talks to us about Buddy, the love of her life who bears an uncanny resemblance to Elvis Presley. After a few minutes of visiting with us, Terry admits that she married Buddy for his Elvis eyes and that he, in turn, was drawn to her by her hairdo.

Gray is endearing as the Everywoman whose daydreaming effectively transports her far away from the mundane world of burger orders and deep-fat fryers. Talking to us about the significant men in her life is what sustains Terry's ebullient spirit, which Gray properly colors with a delightful down-home demeanor. But though we long to hear more about Terry's hopes, dreams and fears, the playwright makes short order of Terry's story, ending the play just as abruptly as it begins.

Brief though it is, GeBauer's play nonetheless shows strong potential for development. While the story is enough to pique our interest for ten minutes, we need to know more about Terry in order for this play to expand into a bona fide one-act. After all, in real life it doesn't take long to get acquainted with perfect strangers, who always manage in thirty seconds or less to tell you more about themselves than you'd ever want to know. In Terry's case, we're starved for details. Fleshing out the quirks of her blue-plate-and-neon existence might help, as would a few pointed comments that reveal Terry's opinions about the community in which she resides. And a few ghostlike Elvis sightings before or during the play might enhance the supernatural feel of this modern gothic romance.

Still, the purpose of producing this short work is to permit GeBauer to take note of a live audience's reaction to a character that had hitherto existed only in her imagination. If first impressions count for anything, Terry's earned another visit or two.

Quite the opposite might be said regarding the festival's second offering, Ellen K. Graham's full-length play The Axe Man. Full of inane utterances such as "I've had him, I've smelled him, I've seen his wet footprints in the grass" and "She's one big raw nerve ending tiptoeing through the world," this nonsensical heap of words and collection of fleeting episodes about the dangers of modern life is a slipshod bore. What's worse, it takes nearly two hours for Graham's jarring, confusing tale to unravel, and by the time it's over, there are so many loose ends dangling that the only people qualified (or remotely interested) in tying them up are the director, Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon, and the playwright herself.

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