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.
Strangely, that's not to say that this effort is a total loss. To their credit, a few of the actors rise above the playwright's drivel and actually succeed in delivering well-crafted portrayals. Though you sense that they don't know what's going on in this play any more than we do, you get the feeling that they've taken it upon themselves to create halfway believable characters. Leading the way is the always splendid Therese Pickard, whose portrayal of the play's most mature female character is an oasis of lucidity in this Sahara of a drama. Each of her scenes becomes another opportunity to grasp a few grains of meaning before the playwright sweeps them away with yet another illogical episode. Jenna Messer is also appealing as a teenager obsessed with her body image.
Part of the problem here is that Graham's would-be statement about the devaluation of language is lost in her stream-of-consciousness dialogue. A good dramatist takes a longer route than improvising her characters' lines--at the very least, she arranges the events in her play so that they make sense to the average person. Unfortunately, it takes only a few minutes of watching The Axe Man before we're hopelessly lost in Graham's bizarre labyrinth.
Billed as the main attraction of the second program, Juanita Pope's Come Sunday proves to be a promising but flawed piece of work. Under the able direction of Dwayne Carrington, a seven-member choir (featuring six soulful black singers and an embarrassingly stiff white guy whose surprising presence in the group is never explained or exploited by Pope) gets the joint jumping with a rollicking chorus of "Yes I Know Jesus!" Then a nattily dressed young man, Desmond (Cajardo R. Lindsey in the festival's strongest performance), comes on stage and tells us that he's the Devil. For the next few minutes he wrestles with the spirits of the Pastor (Jimmy Walker) and the Church Mother (Michele Pope) in short interludes punctuated by Desmond's comments to the audience (whenever Desmond speaks to us, Carrington fills the stage with red light and directs the other actors to move in silent slow-motion). In due time, Desmond makes a play for the soul of a young woman, Sister Sanger (Tracy L. Herrera), who's safe enough in church but vulnerable to Desmond's snares while at work.
Pope's good intentions notwithstanding, she more often than not avoids dealing with topics that are potentially explosive (and therefore dramatic), choosing instead to belabor the obvious: that the Devil is bent on destroying anyone who falls prey to his temptations. Near the end of the drama, we get a sense that Pope is bothered by religious types who shy away from addressing real-life problems such as racism and sexual harassment. But rather than cut loose with some good old-fashioned preaching of her own, the playwright waltzes around the issues. As a result, audience members quickly lose interest in her pedestrian dialogue and simply wait for the next gospel tune to arrive. And in fact, the most powerful and moving moments in this eighty-minute drama are the many church hymns pumped out by the talented choir and organist--songs that Pope herself can't take credit for writing.
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Jeannene Bybee's Family Portrait is another ten-minute novella in need of further development. Written as part of a planned full-length play about the six wives of Henry VIII, it features Pamela Hart as the ill-fated Catherine Parr. Director Terri Thompson stages the action, in which a Painter (Archie Calkins) works on a living portrait of the king and his family, who sit on a platform framed by four gilded pieces of wood. As the artist works on his canvas, the figures in the painting talk to Catherine, and she responds to them. Judging from this sneak preview, Bybee's drama is off to a good start; one imagines Catherine will have much to tell us when her family fades into the background and we're permitted access to the doomed woman's private feelings and thoughts.
The festival's final offering is Christine Emmert's Sunstroke, directed by Beth Foster. All of twenty minutes long, this perplexing drama examines the beliefs of an Italian philosopher, Bruno (Phillip A. Luna), who seems obsessed with the ideas promulgated by Copernicus. The Italian state seems perfectly willing to punish him for those heretical beliefs, but though Bruno appeals to us directly, his artificial gestures and shouted pleas don't do much to support his case. Instead, we're more interested in the relationships and events that have led to his impending execution. Sadly, we get only a smidgen or two of some much-needed passion in this play, competently supplied by supporting actors Charles B. Wingerter and Amy Doe, who plays three different roles.
Perhaps the festival's greatest triumph is that none of these playwrights bemoan the plight of being female or take advantage of the theater's public forum to further a militant agenda. That's an encouraging turn of events that many authors would do well to heed. For when it comes to writing and producing successful plays, it isn't a person's ethnicity, gender or political beliefs that are important. What matters most is a writer's ability to translate ephemeral ideas into a well-told story that illuminates human truths. With time and experience, the CWPF may one day pride itself on producing plays that fit that definition.
The Colorado Women Playwrights Festival, through April 12 at the Arts Center of the West, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.