Sunday, July 22, 2007

Playwright's Showcase

The third annual Playwrights' Showcase of the Western Region concluded last night. There was no showcase last year, which makes me question the word "annual," but no matter: This joint venture between the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities and Red Rocks Community College is one of the Colorado theater season highlights — for the few members of the general public who bother to attend.

The reason for the bewildering lack of public interest, I think, must be the common misconception about the word "reading." Thirty of the 31 new plays performed during the four-day festival were unstaged, with the actors seated on stage, reading from scripts. No sets, no lights, minimal movement and costumes. Described that way, it sounds dull even to me.

It's anything but. When well read, a good play can conjure its author's world. with astonishing fidelity. When recalling readings from the 2005 showcase, both my memory and Lauren's supplied the missing elements: We didn't remember actors behind music stands, but Alaskan landscapes, dystopian futures populated by robot waiters or doppelgangers, or the dressing room of a broken down rodeo clown. Such is the power of vivid language brought to life by expert actors.

Lauren and I saw 18 readings, two half-readings (we bailed on one play at intermission, and saw the conclusion of a different play), and one full production. We would have seen more, but this year's format had different plays running simultaneously the first two days.

Three of the plays were outstanding: Ryan Kelly's "Rendition," a dramatic, provocative look at the effect of torture on those who perform it as well as those who undergo it; William Missouri Downs' "The M Word," about denial and office politics at the University of Wyoming; and Scott Gibson's poignant and hilarious 'Nocturne, Sort Of," the aftermath of a date gone bad. (It would be criminal not to mention Mari Geasair and Bernie Cardell's devastatingly perfect performances in this short play.) Several others were just a half cut below, including Jeffrey Neuman's "Zeus's Women," a series of monologues in which the lack of a dramatic arch couldn't torpedo the language's uninhibited brilliance.

Besides, the post-reading commentary from the showcase luminaries — theater professionals such as playwrights Richard Dresser and Aoise Stratford — compensate for any lack of production values. It was the equivalent of two semesters' worth of theater classes crammed into four days.

Several of the plays were superior to this year's full production — Mark Smith's "A Lesser Life," which was read at the 2005 showcase. (The premise is a couple whose daughters are conjoined twins who can't be separated without killing one. It made me think I should write a play about someone who wins Powerball, and returns home to find out it has been destroyed by a meteor.) Yet the audience for "A Lesser Life" dwarfed those at the readings, proving there is indeed some interest in new plays, provided they're memorized and presented with at least minimal production values.

But it probably whetted some appetites, and perhaps next year's showcase will get the audiences it deserves.