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Plays for the 21st Century

Despite a rocky start, the Playwrights Theater Festival is discovering dramatists of enormous potential.

By Dallas

Gray Palmer as the D.A. grillsSara Lovett as Miriam in The Seventh Monarch
Gray Palmer as the D.A. grills
Sara Lovett as Miriam in The Seventh Monarch
Few people thought they could pull it off: full productions of four original plays, all performed within four consecutive weeks. "Plays for the 21st Century--2000" is a new international play contest initiated by Playwrights Theater, Inc. of Dallas, a novice producing organization with more moxie than experience at undertaking such a daunting theatrical feat.

Organized in 1996 to provide playwrights with a venue for the development and production of their works, Playwrights Theater has presented numerous successful readings and workshops before this leap into the high-profile fray of Metroplex theater. The festival is the brainchild of the company's artistic director, Jack Marshall, and president, Alberto Rubio. Marshall's motivation is to rectify the lack of active participation by playwrights in most producing theaters; he insists that, too often, playwrights find it nearly impossible to attract the attention of regional producers. His goal for the festival was to give budding scribes a showcase for their work.

The festival has proven to be an enormous undertaking; its debut presentation, September 27-30, was marked by a few signs of disaster but was generously spiced with welcome crumbs of theater savvy. The fact that the first production featured novice actors unsure of their lines belies the fact that Playwrights Theater spent over a year designing and executing a nationwide play contest that yielded four very promising finalists. Lean Theater director Thurman Moss (formerly of Theater Three) faced a major casting challenge with Arlington, Texas native Natalie Gaupp's Big Band; racial and generational diversity within a nostalgic, flashback-to-the-'40s setting makes casting to type crucial for Gaupp's script. The Metroplex acting pool is brimming with talent, but experienced "ethnic" actors tend to stick with groups that offer them repeat assignments. While the turnout for the festival auditions was impressive, choices for type-specific roles were clearly limited, and futile attempts to transmit prompts into one less-than-prepared lead actor's ear on opening night proved to be the production's downfall. The Dallas Morning News called Big Band "well-crafted," but also noted that it was hard to tell what had actually been written as opposed to what was being made up on the spot to fill the void. (It should be said that, after its final performance, the beleaguered Big Band received a standing ovation. Unfortunately, the playwright couldn't be on hand that night to witness it.)

Three upcoming productions were somewhat less difficult to cast, and have lured experienced actors from both Equity and non-union ranks; based on that fact and on my reading of the scripts, these plays will likely fair better on the

Cathy Ann Frears as Mrs. Vanderhof andSean Holmes as her student in A Class Act
Cathy Ann Frears as Mrs. Vanderhof and
Sean Holmes as her student in A Class Act
Kim Dawson Theater stage at the new Trinity Arts Center at Motor Street and Central Expressway. Written by David Lohrey of Las Habras. California, A Class Act will be directed by David Larsen, well known to Dallas audiences for both his imaginative choreography and direction. As the second festival entry, A Class Act will run October 4 through 7. Cathy Ann Fears stars in the play as Mrs. Vanderhof, a nearly-retired high school teacher with the lifelong goal of matching her mother's 40-year teaching career. The problem is that Mrs. Vanderhof is facing charges for slapping a misbehaving student. Will she compromise her principles or quit her job? Primarily a character study written by a schoolteacher, A Class Act's soapbox stand is tempered by complex, well-rounded characters. The supporting cast features Damon Decker, Lisa Carnahan, Sean Holmes, Mia Selexman, and Eddie Bendette.

Kerry Cole directs The Seventh Monarch, penned by Jim Henry of Wheeling, Indiana (running October 11 through 14). This is the eerie tale of the rape of a strange but brilliant mathematician named Mariam (Sara Lovett) who once dreamed of becoming an astronaut. The director is especially adept at comedy, which this play is not; still, Cole's trademark, swiftly-paced staging should keep the production interesting. The script reads like a film noir whodunit with some very interesting twists. The Seventh Monarch also includes several juicy supporting roles, to be played by Gail Cronauer, Robert Meadows, Gray Palmer, and Steve Roberts.

Linda Leonard--a popular actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, and director--will stage Panama by Michael Folie of Congers, New York. This final presentation of the festival (backstage buzz says it's also the best) runs October 18 through 21; it's a satirical, comic farce about several quite serious subjects, including mortality: On a madcap road trip to uncover a fountain-of-youth medical miracle, Panama's nutty nuclear family instead meets a dentist (Jim Lindsey) who "saves teeth" and who bears a remarkable resemblance to Jesus Christ. Leonard's stylish staging and choreography should help assure that this tricky but clever play will come alive, delighting and perhaps even shocking audiences with its sharp yet crude humor. More good news is that the director has assembled a first-rate cast, headed by Kevin Keating (who just completed a run at Theatre Three in How the Other Half Loves) and Marisa Diotalevi. Along for the ride are Trey Albright and the always-exciting Laurel Whitsett as conniving young hitchhikers. Popular actors Nye Cooper and Mark Shum team up as Grandpa and Grannie, respectively, tempting fate that they may become an odd couple version of Tracy and Hepburn on area stages. And James T. Fields returns after a long absence from the stage to play a series of zany characters.

The closing evening of the festival, October 21, also will be awards night, followed by a gala reception at the theater. In addition to the first prize of $1,500 given to the winning playwright, an audience award will be presented, tabulated from rating sheets inserted in the programs. And a lifetime achievement award will be presented to playwright Mark Medoff (Children of a Lesser God); this is the Paul Baker Award, named after the legendary former artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center. Baker, who is 89, will attend the ceremony if his health permits.

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[For information on tickets to "Plays for the 21st Century--2000," phone 972-980-7390 or check the website: seatstoday.com]


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