Sometimes you’ve got to take the good with the bad. So it goes with Vital Theatre Company’s new works festival Vital Signs, a three-week collection of short plays that runs the gamut from scheming driving instructors to chats with the Angel of Death. The first installment features five pieces: Driving School of America by Daniel Brenner, Local Potatoes by Norman Kline, Stress Test by Pat Pfeiffer, Jupiter by Scott C. Smith, and Death Comes For the Therapist by Laura Owen. The quality of both content and performance increases as the night goes on, but it sadly has a long way to go from its starting point.
Driving School of America is a cringing display of bottom-rung writing, nothing but a string of racial stereotypes stumbling blindly through a flat and lifeless plot. There is no subtext to be found in watching a gullible Chinese man (David Shih) being duped into parting with his money by an obviously shady character (Emanuel Loarca) representing all that is bad and desperate. If there happened to be any sensitivity or dimension injected into the characters, perhaps this awkward and halting piece wouldn’t be so painful to watch (and no, the fact that the Chinese man is learning to drive so he can transport his cancerous cousin to chemo does not cancel out the banality of the present situation).
With Local Potatoes, the audience is at least given two characters who elicit a response. Richard Kohn as the elderly man desperate to sell his car and Chris Whalen as the young carpenter who inquires about it manage to construct two very different men joined for a moment by a tragedy. As it starts out, Potatoes gives the initial impression of being nothing more than a whiny tirade of complaints about society and the evils of money, but as the story develops, what it becomes is made almost more admirable by its misleading beginning. Director/playwright Norman Kline is on the right track, if not a little lost along the way.
Any play that begins with a solid two minutes of a woman flossing her teeth is bound to have something up its sleeve. True to its word, Stress Test invites the audience into the most absurd and disturbing doctor’s visit ever experienced. The odd mood that is set from the very first moment by director Mahayana Landowne is an excuse for its cast to run wild, and run wild they do. Tom Richter plays his unsuspecting patient with both realism and madness, while David Gochfeld as the Doctor relies on simply madness. Of special note is Jenny Weaver, whose Nurse is a twisted, sadistic delight.
Taking the award for the most mesmerizing and thought-provoking piece of the evening is Jupiter, a chance meeting between two very different men and the dissection of who they are and what is keeping them standing still. John-Michael Cooper’s quiet tension is perfectly matched with Joseph O’Brien’s flamboyant accusations, and hearing them spar on the many subjects of life is thrilling, if not poignant. Director Andrew Sheppard’s masterful guidance allows this piece to explore all the hidden nooks and crannies of hiding from and discovering who we are, which makes Jupiter by far the most worthwhile play of the night.
Don’t get me wrong, Death Comes For the Therapist is no slouch in the entertainment department. However, its tale of an innocent-looking girl appearing at a grief counselor’s office claiming to be the Angel of Death and the counselor’s realization that she’s not crazy is told with only enough angles to get the point across. While Jennifer Blood (as the Angel) and Jacqueline Mazarella (as the therapist) each deliver marginally remarkable performances, Kristi Funk’s awkward Secretary seems jarringly out of place against the subtleness of the other two women.
As the beginning of the festival, this series presents some promising new pieces mixed in with some that should have been left to linger on the page. However, knowing what Vital Theatre is capable of, I’m expectantly looking forward to the next two weeks.
Vital Theatre Company