A (theatre) Festivus for the Rest of Us: Emily Reviews The Shorts of “St. John’s Shorts”

"The festival is good. Thumbs up. Two thumbs up for this festival. It is accessible, it is punchy, it is affordable, it has shows for everyone (even for kids) and it is running for a whole second week so you have a chance to go AFTER reading some reviews."

This first annual (fingers crossed) festival of short plays is a happy accident that was waiting to happen. Though I suspect local theatre professionals would not see the whirl of variety and talent that fell into this call for submissions as an “accident.”

I am going to say it. Most of us potential audience members who have $10 to spend on entertainment this week, think of live theatre as potentially excruciating. The lack of reviews on local theatre exacerbates this problem because you cannot get good information ahead of time to pick something that would suit you. I can read a pile of movie reviews. I even know which reviewers I like to read and which with whom I am likely to agree.

And though critical and unbiased restaurant reviews have largely been transmogrified into profiles, announcements, and watching-people-cook, we can still hear an earful about any restaurant in any town with a few clicks.

This brings me back to my “$10 to spend on entertainment” comment. Ten dollars won’t actually buy a movie in the Cineplex or a meal in St John’s. It may not even buy the one drink you are counting on to make your meal into “entertainment.”

But, through this week, for $10 you can see two plays, each under one hour long. If you enjoyed yourself, dash over to Bitters, the MUN campus graduate bar, get a cheap pint or small pour of wine, discuss the plays, then head back over for the 9:30 showing and do it over again.

Even if the plays were bad (which they are, on average, not … see reviews below), this is entertainment! Watch, laugh, cry, critique, pan, applaud or doze off. The same as you would in a movie, or dinner.

What I am saying is this: the festival is good. Thumbs up. Two thumbs up for this festival. It is accessible, it is punchy, it is affordable, it has shows for everyone (even for kids) and it is running for a whole second week so you have a chance to go AFTER reading some reviews. It makes a brilliant date as it allows you time in the dark, and produces neutral yet scintillating conversation subject matter.

Click here to visit the website for schedule information and further details. A series of short reviews for a series of short plays:

1.) One Thing (***recommend***)

Written and Co-Directed by Andrea Dunne (Malignant, Makeover) and starring Sarah Browne and Simone Alteen as long distance lovers, this engagingly accurate and painful depiction of true-love over Skype is like a pared down version of an ensemble romantic comedy-drama. Like someone picked the most interesting relationship in a longer movie and scalpelled it out so we didn’t have to wade through any secondary scenes to follow the thread of lust to love to reality to love again to careers vs love and, finally, to reckonings and the heartache of making decisions which will have life long repercussions without knowledge of foresight. The actors establish their characters so well that the sex scenes (magnetic make-outs and suggestions of sex accomplished) are more compelling than awkward and both their love for each other and their frictions are well believable. A knife left on the table was one of the few details dying for an edit. it added a tension that was outside of the story and was unfulfilled. But a scene of squabbling, gagging and ultimately attempting compromise over a neon green pistachio-cream cake was as satisfying as a cream pie in the face, though more layered, and cleverly written.

2.) Waking Brian (***Highly recommend***)

A two man team, Stephen Jefford and Darren Ivany,  created the most punch-in-the-gut-fist-clenching-tear-gasper in the festival. A one man soliloquy that is hugely populated as Ivan’s character describes the world and those around him so earnestly they become characters in their own right. The power of this play comes from the complete exposure of authentic reaction. As Ivany, in character, explains, “The first feeling is the real one. The rest is you trying to convince yourself you are better than you are.” There are many many good lines in this play. When describing his best friend, Brian, he explains  Brian’s innate charisma, energy, and built-in self-destruct in contrast to his own nature with, “Not so much I couldn’t keep up with him, but I couldn’t get going like him.” The character was inhabited so fully that it exposed the few small weaknesses in the script when they did not ring true from his mouth. a few lines here and there, mostly near the end where a metaphor for a cup of tea seemed forced and it is as if some erstwhile narrator was cut from the play but one or two lines were deemed too precious to bag and so we get a powerful performance damped down (only slightly) by having to own “steeped in a moment of silence.”  (Spirit Says Goodbye Theatre Company.)

3.) Sleepers  (***Highly recommend***)

Written by Michael Frayn, the English novelist and playwright, as a sort of bit-of-either Sleepers was published in 2014 as part of a series of very short stories that act like plays (or the other way around). Since my long-winded nature is already killing the delight of this piece and the paragraph long review I initially wrote seems a monstrous weight for the lightness of 10 minutes of pure fun, I will, instead, quote Fiona Monford’s review of a production of Sleepers in the UK, “Three pieces, mercifully, rise above the general level of mediocre student fare. Sleepers is a delightful squabble between two figures on a medieval church tomb, a fractious couple who have been bickering for centuries and have now been reawakened by a techno take on choral evensong.” I will add that the costumes/set (all one item in a way) was very nicely done and not “mediocre student fare” one bit. Michael Smith and Laura Huckle gave good comedy with the whites of their eyes and crack paced timing.  (Engine Productions; Under the Bridge Productions.)

4.) Play Dead

This was the largest production of the festival with an eight person ensemble cast and a large crew, including “Special Effects”. With so many moving parts to look after, none seems to have been polished. Since the plot revolves around a theatre production that is already cursed with bad acting, loss of lines, and melodrama (and that is before the zombie plague) perhaps it is a technique to echo those faults. But if so, I hope it is a trope that dies as quickly as the “dumb actress” succumbs to facial mauling in this script. On the bright side, as my date pointed out, what zombie movie isn’t b-grade? So at least we escaped any major breakthroughs. (Written/directed by Jon Aylward).

5.) The Stronger (***recommend***)

The choice of this play is interesting. It is both a safe choice; it is unassailably well written literature that has stood the test of time (written by August Strindberg in 1889), and a wild choice; it is a pointed conversation between two women where one never speaks and the other fluctuates between our empathy and our scorn. It is all mirrors and jabs and pouting and archness. The production overall is amateur  in that the budgets for these productions are basically nothing, so weeks of costumed rehearsal are never behind them. No matter how short a short, this is always a loss. But the acting was high calibre and burned for full funding to allow it to build beyond its current limitations. Natalie Hennelly and Monica Walsh made the century old phrasing their own, inhabiting it fluently and making new characters to a modern eye. I do not know these ladies they brought to the stage. I cannot sum them up and predict them. But I believe them, and they have my attention. When “Mrs X” makes “Mrs Y” genuinely burst out laughing with an imitation of Mr X running the household through the cadence of his slippered feet, it rubs shoulders with the pearly comedy of Jenny Slate and her endearing Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. But that laughter evokes discomfort too as we, the audience, cannot laugh freely without noticing the class boundaries as the “Waitress” hovers in the background while the master’s slippers dress down the servants. We also come to see that Mrs Y may have laughed so hard because she knew him too well.  It is a play to chew on. Our gaze and our sympathies are always in motion as we must decide through much of the play whose face to look at. For half of it, you cannot see both women at once without lizard eyes and this creates a complicity of our focus. While Mrs. Y has all the dialogue, silent Mrs X has a raised lip and eyebrows that go from high condescension and disgust to a complete questioning of her inner self and her own motives with a mere millimetre droop of the face between. This play raises questions about perception and about female friendships and how much of each is a manipulation. You get the feeling the director has fully digested the script of this play and communicated it well to the actors, but has not had the luxury of additional time to actively decide on the artifice of the rest of the production, was it a choice or a default to set this in its original period? This play occupies my mind. (Ninja Theatre Collective, Directed by Jackie Hynes).

6.) Work in Progress (***recommend***)

Written and Directed by Jana Gillis, this dynamic concept play moves from an engaging but (at first) inexplicable Act 1 of whirling figures in black enacting scenario after scenario of “boy meets girl”, through an intersection with a more familiar academic world populated by two flawed but coherent humans and then on to an ending too tidy to do the odd musicality and instinct of the first two acts justice.  At its height, we find ourselves just grasping how these two worlds both function and feed off of each other, which gives all four characters more depth and scope simply by making our minds open to the possibilities in their life we are not ever shown. This is where it gives off Being John Malkovich energy. During the meat of the play, things clearly do make sense whether we can make sense of them or not and true surrealism is thrown in for style only not to hide an unformed plot. The acting recreates the energy of very good improv while holding the line towards some end goal, some enlightenment. It is too bad that enlightenment takes the form of “Love Actually” and folds up the intricate box of potentialities into one nice neat little package of “potential love interest.”

7.) A Village Wooing

The costume and set for this grating “comedietta” gave the eye something to enjoy, if not the ear. The beautifully carried and layered autumnal shades of cranberry, burnt rust, and sage were like the handsome and professional colour scheme from an episode of Downtown Abbey. But, while self-conscious textiles can be lovely, a self conscious play cannot. Marie Jones saves the piece from complete tedium with a fully inhabited character and some genuine sparkle that does, as her character points out, make her very attractive despite her station and supposed plain features, or in this case, despite the play itself. (Double Sure Theatre Co-op, written by George Bernard Shaw, 1933, directed by Charlie Tomlinson)

8.) The Actor’s Nightmare

This is a comedy. More precisely, this is an inside comedy for, and about, the world of theatre. Despite that, it is entertaining as the hapless amnesiac (played by Chris Panting) wanders from one play through another, each time without his lines. He does wander a time too many and the pacing is a few beats too slow to give this work enough momentum to punch through its own self-farcing onus. But, if you find yourself suddenly in the midst of it, blinking your eyes and not quite sure how you got yourself into the folding seats of a small box theatre audience, take heart, it is relatively painless and will leave no lasting impression, much less scars. (Nothing On Productions, written by Christopher Durang).

9.) Pirate Play (kid’s show) (**recommend**)

This is a production for very young children. And, as such, it is quite nice. It is simple and the appealing cardboard “ship” with its own miniature “plank” are just what your 2-5 year old wants to clamber aboard. The plot is simple and in that particularly un-weird vein of children’s entertainment where the “good guys” are the nicest and most rational kids on the playground and the end goal of personhood is “inviting everyone to play equally.” And for just $5 dollars the cast hams that message up with good nature, a fun pirate song accompanied by ukulele, and free juice boxes for all the scurvy dogs in the audience. My pre-schooler has already asked if we can go again. It is also an excellent and completely stress-free way to introduce your child to live theatre. Go ahead and try it, you just might like it even though anything objectionable has been stripped out.

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