During the recent Bay One Acts Festival, a fascinating two-character play by Christopher Chen that was originally produced by Instrumental Theatre made a deep impression on me. Directed by Paul Cello, A Game starred Ariane Owens and Charisse Loriaux as a lesbian couple cleaning out the house belonging to one partner's deceased mother. At various times in the script, the voice of a couples counselor interrupted the action to suggest a bit of role-playing to help them deal with the grieving partner's emotions.
As the playwright explains:
What I aim to do in my plays is to take the audience down a rabbit hole, and to make this a meticulously choreographed journey. I like to first create a solid structure, then slowly pull this structure out from under the audience's feet, so that they ultimately land in a place of real dislocation and ambiguity. For me, this mimics the process of confronting a work of art, then allowing the work to shift and change until it ultimately expands your mind and upends your emotional state. I aim to have my plays guide the audience through this 'expanding' and 'upending' process, and I hope that's what happens in this play, albeit in a shorter time frame. I wanted to do an intimate, two-person drama with no fancy frills, just two actors and a director really digging into a text. I also wanted to have some sort of shifting of reality that was totally self-generated and perpetuated by the characters.
A weird therapy game proved a natural set-up. But then, after I already mapped the play out, I realized I might have been subconsciously influenced by two works I read many years ago (The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera, and Harold Pinter's play, The Lover). Initially I had written the characters as a heterosexual couple, but then Paul suggested two females for several reasons. First, we need more juicy female roles onstage. Second, having two females would make the shifting power dynamics more interesting. Thirdly, it would just be great to have a play which contains a lesbian couple in which their sexual orientation wasn't the subject. What I love about the play now is that, by making them a same-sex couple, we ultimately get to zero in more, without the specter of male sexual power dynamics hovering in the background. It is a more neutral space in a way, where we can really focus in more on key subjects like trust and delusion (among others).
A Game does a beautiful job of revealing the hidden baggage (fears of abandonment, inadequacy, etc.) in an otherwise successful relationship. Chen's play also reunited director Paul Cello with Ariane Owens (who had worked together on Sam Leichter's The Pond at last year's Bay One Acts Festival).
Owens is an extremely gifted artist whose magnificently layered internal acting is a joy to behold. While Charisse Loriaux offered a compelling performance as her partner, one wonders if Owens is destined to become a Bay area muse.
The final installment in Sam Leichter's "Donna DeSantos" trilogy, In Bed was directed by PianoFight's Rob Ready. The play starts on a fairly giddy high as Jenny (Rachel Ferensowicz) and Max (Brian Trybom) meet in a bar and head back to Max's apartment for a drunken roll in the hay. As soon as they get in the door, their hands are all over each other. It seems as if they can't get each other's clothes off quickly enough.
Jenny awakens the next morning to an empty bed but is soon joined by Max (who was making coffee). The usual morning-after nervous fumbling to see whether they should spend more time together is interrupted by someone pounding on the apartment door. Enter Cassidy (Geoffrey Nolan), a local crime detective who, at that particular moment, is the last person in the world Max wants to see.
It soon becomes obvious that Max is a registered sex offender and that, with the news that a local woman has been murdered, his name is at the top of a list of suspects Cassidy needs to check on as soon as possible. Cassidy's fury at Max's potential guilt, Jenny's shock at this unhappy revelation, and Max's desperation to prove to her that he is innocent and deserves a rare chance at happiness cause a sudden spike in the dramatic tension.
In Bed puts a new twist on questions most people ask after enjoying some moments of casual sex and intimacy:
As in his prior two plays at Bay One Acts (Philadelphia, The Pond), the skill with which Leichter (who is also the Education Manager for the Marin Shakespeare Company) builds suspense and puts his characters at risk reveals a major dramatic talent. As he explained in a recent interview with BOA's Marissa Skudlarek:
I'm an actor who writes. When I direct, I'm an actor who directs. And when I teach, I'm an actor who teaches. Everything I put down on paper comes from my experience as an actor. The way it has influenced me the most, I would say, is that I always, always, always strive to write characters that actors will want to play. I never want an actor to feel like they are being taken for granted or that they don't have something juicy to sink their teeth into. I may not always succeed in this, but I always try.
In my writing, I'm always looking for potential explosions. While none of my plays have ever contained actual violence, the potential for violence is always critical. The men in my plays really scare the shit out of me. They are men that I've met in Philadelphia who have a certain harshness, a hypermasculinity that is a perfect powder keg for the kind of intense stories I'm interested in telling. The city of Philadelphia is amazing, enormous, and I'm proud to call it my home. It's also a city that, in many ways, can never seem to get out from behind the eight ball. The characters in my plays are often the same.
If any theater company's artistic director is looking to produce an evening of white-knuckle drama with a small cast, I can't recommend Sam Leichter's trilogy of short plays strongly enough. His writing is exquisite, his plotting meticulous, and his characters are unforgettable. This playwright is a major dramatic talent who deserves professional nurturing in theaters across America.
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