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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Robots, robberies and relationships go awry in Playwrights Ink's 21st annual showcase Coming of Age
Jan Levine Thal's very brief "If, and, or Robot" is a frothy concoction.
Credit:Playwrights Ink

Coming of Age, the 21st anniversary showcase from local writing collective Playwrights Ink, finished its run at the Bartell Theater Saturday night. Seven short plays written by six local playwrights were presented over the course of two acts. A committee chose the presented works from a pool of 30 submissions.

Casem AbuLughod directed the five plays in Act I. Lori Matthew's "Between Us" featured a couple (Sara Beth Hahner, Louis Sather) who wake up to find a mysterious man in their bed, sleeping soundly and snoring. The man isn't much of a surprise to the pair since they have a magically open relationship: It appears that past crushes, infatuations and loves tend to take physical form in their marital bed. The couple bicker and banter about getting rid of this surprise visitor until the wife realizes he is the present-day version of a heroic lifeguard from a long-ago vacation.

George Farah's "Tech Support" has a man named Bill (Karl Reinhardt) dealing with an automated customer-service phone line. In this case, the always polite and dulcet tones of the operator (a recording of Dana Pellebon) become increasingly frustrating because Bill needs to get through to the manufacturer of his pacemaker. A mild annoyance soon becomes a life-threatening scenario. Reinhardt can turn himself totally red, so it really looks like he is experiencing a cardiac emergency.

Brendon Smith's "C-Store Story" follows the trajectory of a surprisingly good-natured convenience store hold-up. A bungling kid (Jay Gabel) is disappointed at the paltry amount of money in the register manned by the loopy, Munchos-craving cashier (Jane Leahy). Gabel tries to ring up a large sale to a customer (Karl Reinhardt) by posing as a cashier, but when he reveals why he tried to rob the store, Leahy puts an interesting spin on things.

In Coleman's "Mifflin Meteor," Matt (John Siewert) and Joe (John Steeno) contemplate the definition and proper pronunciation of existentialism. Siewert conveys a good-natured confusion, and Steeno is his more articulate and relatively erudite drinking buddy who finds himself contemplating open-heart surgery and the nature of the universe.

Jan Levine Thal's very brief "If, and, or Robot" is a frothy concoction in which Gabel portrays Stuart, a housekeeping robot brought in for a tune-up by his owner, Olga (Betsy Wood), when he short-circuits and morphs into a smooth-talking, Eurotrash gigolo. Repair woman Maggie (Sara Beth Hahner) has tampered with him to induce his lascivious breakdowns and is the happy recipient of his automated lovin'. Gabel is appealing with his herky-jerky movements and love talk.

The two longer plays in the second act were both directed by Bonnie Balke, and included my favorite of the bunch, "Reversal of Fortune" by Brendon Smith (his second work in the production). C. John Shimniok plays Teeth, a competitive eater who tells the story of his intense training and triumphant victory at the Kringle Krank in Roscoe, Wisconsin. Wiry, witty and fleet of foot, Shimniok was a bundle of humor and pathos as he bounded around the stage, regaling the crowd with the ins and outs, as it were, of food contests. I sometimes complain when writers go for cheap laughs by simply tossing in a lot of Wisconsin-centric references (for example, in Guys on Ice and Muskie Love), but here I welcomed asides about kringles and small-town Wisconsin because Smith deftly weaves them in. They are key to the work instead of throwaways.

Jack Guzman's "Waiting for the 28" was the longest and clunkiest work on the program. A couple named Jasper and Maggie (Jeff Kelm, Betsy Wood) are waiting for a bus home from the mall when they encounter a young, homeless man named L.B. (John Steeno). The cranky, stodgy Jasper is leery of L.B., Maggie (Betsy Wood) is downright maternal. When Maggie learns how L.B. ended up on the streets, her inclination is to take him in and when Jasper protests, he hastily shares their own painful story of loss. I think the work would have been stronger if the audience were left wondering why Maggie and Jasper's stories about their son differed. Steeno has some nice moments as a bitter vet, though.

This showcase reminds me that even though I may find flaws in a script or a performance, it's easier to critique other people's work than it is to execute my own ideas.

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