As debuts go, The Smart Women Project -- the first-ever production from the new Kathie Rasmussen Women's Theatre company -- is, well, awfully smart. The production's nine short plays run the gamut from sober realism to out-there experiments to frenetic zaniness, and while some work better than others, all of them work, and none talk down to the audience.
Project played to a nearly packed house Friday night at TAPIT/New Works theater ("We thought the show was sold out, but then we found more chairs," producer Jan Levine Thal joked before it started), and, over its two hours and 15 minutes, never gave anyone's attention a reason to wander. It opened strong with "Turning the Heel" by Amy White (like the all the plays, an original work by a woman), a slice-of-life piece whose down-home philosophical musings and humor got you gently hooked, offering reason to believe that would followed would be of the same caliber.
Which it more or less was. "The Report Is Longer Than..." provided an eerie, disconcerting glimpse into a vaguely sci-fi mental hospital, and "The Magician" melded Guideposts magazine's and The Twilight Zone's storytelling styles to charming effect. Standout "Punctuated Equilibrium" brought to mind Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels, and careened thrillingly close to political cheerleading before course-correcting in somewhat shocking fashion; Sarah Whelan's performance was one of many of the night's triumphs for her, and Brian Belz deserved the many laughs he got.
Belz's juggler was also the best part of "Send the Dummy," a comedy that felt out of control at times -- the polar opposite of "Prelude to Gaza," which veered toward pretension but conveyed the sense of alienation and gravitas it aimed for. Don Dexter, as the homeless title character in "Johnny Five," commanded the stage.
"Turtle Beach" matched youthful romance against matronly pragmatism, ultimately coming down on the side of both. (Although actor Addie Clearwood's program bio reads, "She is only 14, so she can't quite call herself a 'real actor,'" she can.) And "Vivace -- Ma Non Troppo" (that's "lively -- but not too much"), with its miscreant Brits, played with a similar theme, reminding us that romance isn't only for youth, and rounding out the show on a high note.
All nine selections made use of the same intelligently modest set, sometimes augmented by humble props (the ocean in "Turtle Beach" was notably delightful); and equally simple sound effects and lighting kept the focus on the action.
The 20-minute intermission could have been five minutes shorter, but other than that, there's little to complain about in The Smart Women Project and much to praise. The troupe has set the bar high for future shows. Do get there early to get a good seat.