September 27, 2001

Lighter Side of the Black Box

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In the midst of a semester filled with straight drama at The Center for Theatre Arts (CTA), some comic relief is on the way, compliments of Ben Shiffrin ’03. The junior is at the helm as director of the CTA’s first Black Box show of the year, entitled Three Short Plays. The show is a combination of three works by Christopher Durang: Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room, DMV Tyrant, and Funeral Parlor.

Shiffrin is already a veteran of the Black Box directing series, having directed The Dutchman last spring. Unlike his last show, which had serious commentary on racial tensions, this show is a light hearted comedy. Shiffrin said that he picked these particular Durang plays because of their comic material. The jokes are user-friendly, and don’t require a lot of interpretation for the audience. “There isn’t too much going on under the surface here. Audiences shouldn’t try to read into it too much– DMV Tyrant in particular is interesting because the insane characters are the majority. The logical character is the antagonist in the scene.”

The CTA held casting for the show at the end of last semester, concurrent with the casting for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The actors double up roles, portraying minor parts in each of the short plays. In lead parts, Business Lunch features Daniel Antoniazzi ’02 as Chris, and Kristina Watkins ’03 as Melissa. DMV Tyrant will have Lisa Morse ’02 as a DMV agent, and Michael Benn ’02 as her customer. Funeral Parlor features Jason Klein ’03 as Marcus, and Peggy Powers ’03 as Susan.

The Black Box series is designed to give student directors a venue to present a short play, under limited time and budget specifications. There are two Black Box shows each semester. Aspiring student directors must submit proposals to the CTA play selection committee. Those selected are given a scaled down budget and limited rehearsal time. The Black Box shows are meant to be shorter pieces, saving the big budget productions for the mainstage season.

Shiffrin wanted to be on the ball, knowing the limited rehearsal time allotted to the Black Box shows. To prepare for this, he had the actors off book by the first rehearsal. Actor Antoniazzi noted, “Ben was really ahead of the game. Being off book when we started was a big help.” Klein added, “Working with Ben was a lot of fun.” Powers also commented on having a positive experience during rehearsal (even though she expressed concerns about maintaining an authentic Yiddish accent for her scene as a Rabbi).

Shiffrin said that there were surprisingly few obstacles over the course of rehearsals. He attributes the smooth process to his actors, as well as the production staff. “I’ve learned that you can’t have a good enough production team.” That team consists of Pheobe Boynton ’03 as costume designer, Seth Bernstein (High School) as lighting designer, Scott Kelly ’02 as sound designer, and Upstage Left veteran Aubryn Sidle ’04 as set designer.

Durang’s plays have enjoyed commercial success on the Broadway stage, off-Broadway venues, and in regional productions. Durang’s popular off-the-wall comedies include The Actor’s Nightmare and Betty’s Summer Vacation. He is the recipient of Obie awards for The Marriage of Betty and Boo and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. In addition, he earned a Tony nomination for A History of American Film.

Performances are Friday at 4:30, and Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 in the CTA’s Black Box Theatre (located in the subasement). Tickets are $2.00 at the Box Office. Rori Bergman ’02 will direct the next play in the Black Box Series, The American Century, coming up November 9-11.

When asked about his expectations for the success of the show, Shriffrin remarked, “I’ll be happy if audiences just walk away with a smile on their face.” Hopefully they will.

Archived article by Daniel Fischer