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THEATRE REVIEW: Barrington Stage’s 10×10 New Play Festival a lively collection to fight off the cold weather

The evening has something for everyone and someone for everything.

10×10 New Play Festival
By Cynthia Arsenault, Rachel Bublitz, Deirdre Girard, Mark Harvey Levine, John Minigan, Scott Mullen, Erin Osgood, Jessica Provenz, Connie Schindewolf, Ann Marie Shea
Directed by Julianne Boyd and Matthew Penn

“. . . lick them with your emotions.”

Ten authors are offering up 10 one-act (about 10 minutes) plays in this annual festival, and although a few of them are dramatic and moving, most of them are built on the fragile structure of humor; not everyone can react the same way to a funny piece, especially when the jokes are rare and the intent is subtle. A few of these pieces are not exactly subtle but rather clobber you with their joke and that works as well as the other kind of light piece and, in fact, makes a great deal of sense in the arrangement of plays in this two-act structure. One play in the group left me cold as it closed its argument without a solution. One play lost me in its extremes. The other eight won me over heart and soul. However, as everyone in the crowded house is different and coming from different places than I am, let me give you a sense of what the six superb actors and two excellent directors have offered up this February. You’ll be amazed, I am sure.

The plays (in order of presentation) are “Five Seconds” by Connie Schindewolf; “Minor Deviations” by Erin Osgood; “Closing Doors” by John Minigan; “Digital Detox” by Cynthia Arsenault; “Stay, Please” by Jessica Provenz; “Jill Takes a Leap” by Scott Mullen; “Are You One of Those Robots?” by Deirdre Girard; “With Improvements by the Actors” by Ann Marie Shea; “My Body” by Rachel Bublitz; and “Oy Vey Maria” by Mark Harvey Levine.

Kenneth Tigar as Joachim, Maya Loren Jackson as Mary, Doug Harris as Little Drummer Boy and Peggy Pharr Wilson as Ann in ‘Oy Vey Maria’ by Mark Harvey Levine at Barrington Stage Company’s 10×10 New Play Festival. Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware

The show ends with the funniest of the plays — always a good way to send your audience out of the theater. The three kings, or wise men, have come to pay homage to the infant Jesus but their mission to give gifts is interrupted by Mary’s mother and father, who have followed their errant daughter to the barn on their camel. What happens then is “the Bronx.” Led by the incredible Peggy Pharr Wilson into the northern borough of New York City’s classic Jewish accent, the play assumes the guise of a Yiddish Passion Play and with tears of regret, anguish and good old-fashioned guilt, Ann (Wilson) shows her daughter how to raise a Jewish boy. The hilarious concept by playwright Mark Harvey Levine just keeps dwelling on this theme until there is nowhere else to go with it. This is one of the funniest little plays I have seen in the past year. Even the three kings are remarkable and this wonderful cast just plummets to the base of burlesque humor. If there was nothing else worth watching in these two hours of new plays, this piece returns the goods and reminds us of the best of classic sketch hilarity: “The Carol Burnett Show,” Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason. “Oy Vey!”

Peggy Pharr Wilson as Elaine and Kenneth Tigar as Bruce in ‘Stay, Please’ by Jessica Provenz at Barrington Stage Company’s 10×10 New Play Festival. Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware

Wilson offers memorable performances in many other plays in this series. In the second play, “Minor Deviations” by Erin Osgood, she is the efficient and deliberate Townsend representing her company’s interests, restoring, with a clone, the lost wife and mother to a family, but with a difference in mind. In “Are You One of Those Robots?” by Deirdre Girard, she plays a charitable woman whose beliefs have left a deep chasm between her and her daughter. In “Stay, Please” by Jessica Provenz, she is my mother’s worst fear: the widow/neighbor with devious intentions toward an older man whose wife has just died. With an eye toward the ridiculous, Provenz has provided this woman with a lasagna, a gun and an unbreakable spirit. On the outside she is as cool as a cucumber, but passions seethe in her soul and Wilson shows us that through smiles, gestures and posture. It is one of the finest pieces of acting in the entire evening. As her target, Kenneth Tigar is on the top of his game from his entrance disrobing to his gaining the controlling hand. I truly loved this play and its language, spoken and visual, perfectly directed by Julianne Boyd.

Kenneth Tigar as Dick, Peter Macklin as Jack and Doug Harris as Algernon in
‘With Improvements by the Actors’ by Ann Marie Shea at Barrington Stage Company’s 10×10 New Play Festival. Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware

Tigar appears in three other plays in the group including “Five Seconds” by Connie Schindewolf, which opens the show. Here, two actors, Maya Loren Jackson and Doug Harris, audition for Tigar’s character, Barker, for a series of new one-act plays each lasting only five seconds, the ultimate answer to a growing epidemic of ADHD — a very funny play directed beautifully by Matthew Penn. Among his other work here is “With Improvement by The Actors” by Ann Marie Shea, about actors rehearsing “Hamlet,” in which Peter Macklin’s Jack simply cannot keep his actor’s hands off the script, which he thinks still needs a lot of work. This lively little play about ego and talent absolutely hits the mark right on its noggin.

Keri Safran, who appears in the first four plays as well as four more in the second half, does a fabulous job for both directors, playing robotic clones, an abused schoolteacher, an angry wife, a drunken bride, and a pragmatic and controlling HR type. She is a major asset to this company — major.

Peter Macklin as Wesley, Doug Harris as Gary, Keri Safran as Carleen and Maya Loren Jackson as Jill in ‘Jill Takes a Leap’ by Scott Mullen at Barrington Stage Company’s 10×10 New Play Festival. Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware

An adorable play in the group, “Jill Takes a Leap” by Scott Mullen, gives Maya Loren Jackson one of her finest roles as directed by Penn. A young bride-to-be is about to bungee jump in order to take advantage of a small window of time before losing her freedom when she discovers that she has fears other than giving up her freedom and individuality in marriage. On the platform of departure, she confronts her fears and those of three other people. Safran and Macklin are next in line, planning to wed on the way down and get pregnant on the rebound. Harris is the manager of the bungee business, scared of heights and life itself. This wonderful mismatch of desperate souls opens the second half of the show and, for my money, lifts the collection into the stratosphere.

Some of the darker moments in the two-hour show are hard to hold onto, though nothing is impossible. The directors have excellent assistance from the design team: Brian Prather/Joseph Martin for sets, Trinity Melissa Koch for costumes, Lucas Pawelski for lights, and Alexander Sovronsky for sound. The show’s stage manager, Rachel Lynne Harper, handles the shifting psychology well. The evening has something for everyone and someone for everything. You can easily fight off the cold weather by journeying into this lively collection of new plays you’ll think about for quite a while. That makes it all so worthwhile.

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10×10 New Play Festival plays on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Sunday, March 8. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or go to barringtonstageco.org.

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