October 7, 2013

Ten-Minute Playfest: Flawed, Raw and Promising

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Friday’s Ten-Minute Playfest at the Schwarz Performing Arts Center, coordinated by Sarah Byrne ’15, featured six plays written by undergraduates and performed on a minimalistic set in the center’s Black Box Theatre. The goal of this collaboration between Cornell’s performing and media arts department and the Red Shadow Productions student theatre club is: “to give students the opportunity to see their work on stage in a more full-fledged production than is usually granted to student-written pieces,” and “to provide everyone involved with an accessible first step into the world of theatre,” Byrne said in Spring 2013.

The first ten-minute episode, Four One, was a dark drama written by Darah Barnes ’15 and directed by graduate student Nick Fesette. Jazlin Gomez ’16 gave an effectively creepy performance as the lead, Diane, whose boyfriend is about to awaken to discover that some of his body parts (specifics are undisclosed) have been lost to a drunken accident. Then we learn that she used to do “stuff like this” (Dismemberment? Murder? Spandex shorts with hooker boots?) all the time, on purpose, for fun, with a doubly sinister character named K.C. (Enoch Newkirk ‘14). Individual actors sell their parts, but the dialogue falls flatter than the diced-off piece of skin K.C. carries around during the denouement. Creepy to the core, the darkness is for show and nothing more and never becomes satisfyingly so.

The Thirty-Minute Waltz, written by Anna Brenner ’16 and directed by Aleksej Aarsaether ’17 is the clear stand-out of the series. A comedic look at what it would be like to hang out in the belly of the whale with the infamous Jonah, the script is sharp, smart, and loaded with cultural allusions that bring the familiar Bible tale into full swing with modernity. A misguided Spring Breaker played by Gwen Aviles ’17 knocks heads with the notorious intestinal denizen played by Sam Morrsion ’17 while she waits out the thirty minutes she has before being digested. It’s a silly premise but one that makes no assumptions of grandeur — it’s true to itself and is geared for laughs, not insightful reflection. Morrison’s handle of physical comedy and exceptional comedic timing steals the show, epitomized in his gruff, awkward rendition of Kelis’ “Milkshake” to open and close the act.

Continuing on the same light note, the show proceeds with Danny Bernstein ’15 and Carol Bass ’14’s Human Nature, a quick look at the gender relation dynamics within your typical collegiate Starbucks. The actors, notably Kevin Qiao ’17 and Hannah Zlotnick ’14, have a firm grasp on what makes satire funny and execute hilarious caricatures of your standard C-town bozos. But that’s all they’re allowed to do. Human Nature doesn’t really say anything about “human nature,” unfortunately, and mostly just has a really good time calling other people stupid for ten minutes. The ending is an unsatisfactory meet-cute between the two characters whose plainness is meant to foil the other couple’s cartoonishness, in which they have a not-so-convincing love connection over ordering the same vanilla bean frappuccino. Add an eye-rolling barista for some sit-com irony and stir; the plot-line might make you queasy but the acting ability is impossible to ignore.

Cameo, written by Whitney Wenger ’13 and directed by Claire Stack ’15 stars Hannah Zlotnick ‘14 as well — this time in a dramatic role. Cami, a girl seemingly in conflict with a jilted lover is revealed to be warring not with another person, but in actuality with another manifestation of herself (played by Surya Kumar ’14). An interesting dichotomy between the true self and the self-sabotaging maniac within was completely disrupted by Kumar’s character’s impromptu screaming rant about all the times he had saved Cami from instances of date-rape and incest, yelling details at her that made her writhe on the floor in ostensible trauma. This wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if hadn’t been so clearly used for shock factor and so sadistically narrated as to seem like it was written explicitly for the intent of making the audience uncomfortable. This discomfort leads to a jarring murder-suicide, but it doesn’t lead to any kind of recognizable take-away aside from a “Made you squeamish, huh?” Yes. Yes you really, really did.

The Patriots is a quick and believable family comedy-drama penned by Jessica Evans ’15 and directed by graduate student Aoise Stratford featuring another strong performance from Qiao, this time as a die-hard New England Patriots fan the day before his wife’s funeral. Elly Valastro ’17 is incredibly convincing as the ladder-climbing lawyer-to-be prodigal daughter, returning for her mother’s funeral with a new law professor husband in tow. Valastro is given ample room to shine within the confidently-written dialogue which circles a group of family members ‘round and ‘round their obvious issues until something catastrophic forces them to stab at them. While the disapproving backwards parent archetype is tried and true, and too-tried and too-true, Evans’ script uses solid jokes and believable characterization to make this into a story we can still be interested in.

Cornell Confesses, written and directed by Claire Stack ‘15 opens on three actors reciting real Cornell Confessions from the notorious Facebook page — benign ones like “I like my cat more than I like my boyfriend” and “To whoever didn’t flush the toilet in Goldwin-Smith, you are a dirty bird,” which audience members met happily with laughter. But then, the play takes a darker turn: suddenly there’s a robotic voiceover talking about suicide as the actors list off dates and times of recent notable instances. Suicide awareness at Cornell is an incredibly complicated issue and it is completely a given that not everyone here treats it with sufficient sobriety. However, in my opinion, this play seemed like an unfair assault. The structure effectively proclaimed that audience members should feel guilty for treating the topic of suicide lightly, despite the fact that the two sequences were completely unrelated. The actors go on to read heart-warming responses to Cornell Confessions that encourage people not to feel alone, to reach out for support, to stay strong. This is a welcome and positive message, but it didn’t hit home with me; I was too frustrated by the play’s attempt to exploit Cornell’s suicide problem. It feels less like a serious discussion of psychological processes, cultural norms or the stigma of asking for help and more like the easy thing to do. I respect Stacks’ ambition in taking on this sensitive topic, but I do not think she applied enough sensitivity or critical thinking to this controversial topic.

In regards to the goals stated by the orchestrators of the Playfest, the e­vent was an obvious success — tickets were hard to come by and the positive energy of an audience of friends and fellow students was palpable — proof positive that “something good can work” and that Red Shadow Productions is now providing a cultural service that Cornell students are more than happy to indulge in. Hopefully, as this event becomes a standard part of Cornell’s cultural fare, writers and directors will be pushed to provide increasingly intellectually challenging and dynamic works, and continue to help showcase the obvious plethora of performance talent that we have here on campus. While some of the specific pieces of the Playfest were dissatisfying, I am entirely sincere in advocating that this event be repeated — it’s a great idea which will only get better with practice.