The best thing about Black Box Theater Ensemble's trio of one-acts, The Whole Shebang, is that the Boulder-based company has a good time without taking itself too seriously. That's no mean feat in a drone-prone town that holds meetings about pet-guardianship and garbage-ownership rights.
The three plays, presented at the Dairy Center for the Arts, run on alternate nights with a collection of sketches loosely bundled as Love, Art and Miniature Golf. Together, the programs comprise what Black Box calls "A Sensitive New-Age Theater Festival for a Sensitive New-Age Town." Despite some technical glitches and thin portrayals, the fledgling troupe (formerly known as X-Axis Independent Theater) uses off-the-wall humor and sober reflection to make us chuckle about -- and sometimes question -- our place in the cosmos.
First up is Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare, a tried-and-true comedy that centers on a malady common to every performer: the horror, usually manifested during a nightmare, of "waking up" and discovering that you're on stage in a play you've never rehearsed with actors you've never met. Along the way, there are plenty of theater in-jokes (like the main character's name, George Spelvin), comical corruption of lines from famous plays and even some obligatory haranguing about Catholicism and post-modernism, the twin influences/banes of Durang's professional life. Despite being plagued by mugging and put-on attitudes, the forty-minute piece manages to entertain.
Paradoxically, David Ives's thirty-minute exercise in existential angst, Long Ago and Far Away, is better acted than the first piece, but it's less effective dramatically. As it begins, a married couple is on the verge of leaving their Manhattan apartment for a more upscale abode. As Laura and Gus summon memories of living in the modest space, they go off on tangents that, while interesting in theory, don't amount to much. Laura, for instance, yammers on about the fact that things around her really do exist ("All this is really here; somehow it just hit me") and feeling as though her life is made of white gauze. When her mate replies, "I don't know what to tell you," he speaks, perhaps unintentionally, for the rest of us. Later, though, the two encounter a couple of figures from the past, and the drama takes on a mysterious air. But rather than reward us with a surprise twist, the play's ending is more confusing than satisfying. Even so, performers Mavi Graves, Bill Keys, Robin Madel and Erik Moellering turn in some nicely shaded portrayals.
Thankfully, the evening's third offering, Rich Orloff's The Whole Shebang, proves well worth the wait. Set in "a dimension beyond human comprehension," the forty-minute play concerns a student's efforts to convince a panel of so-called experts to give her a passing grade on an assignment to create a viable ecosystem. We soon learn that this is no run-of-the-mill dissertation defense: The student has taken on the task of creating a distant, theoretical system that we recognize as Earth. Things become more intriguing when the panel commends the student for having invented water, questions her about the necessity of having an Ice Age ("I screwed up," she explains) and argues with her about why humans are so arrogant when cows, which are clearly superior in function, are not.
Performers Bill Graham, Jessica Green and Eric Reid join Graves, Madel and Moellering for the enjoyable finale. Aided by director David Blumenstock's astute touches, the company succeeds in fleshing out the show's clever jokes, skewed references and poignant truths. That last item might seem out of place in an evening full of wry musings. But when the student defends her decision to create humans, the explanation cuts through all the tongue-in-cheek commentary. As Hallmark-like as it might sound, you get the distinct feeling that, slovenly habits and bellicose ways notwithstanding, the human race is, as Hamlet observed, the paragon of creation.
All in all, the first half of Black Box's aptly named festival proves a healthy step in the right direction. In fact, the group's efforts sometimes bring to mind the edgy, offbeat productions that were the mainstay of the old Guild Theater, a pair of black-box warehouse spaces that are no longer in operation (the building reverted to a warehouse, and the groups either disbanded or now perform at the Dairy Center). With a little more polish and attention to detail, the company might more closely resemble the old Guild. That sounds like something worth holding a meeting or two about.
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