Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Also see Mark's review of Sotto Voce
In some years the pickings are a varied mix in terms of quality of presentation and performance. In others, the pieces work together to offer a dramatic tapestry of the human condition (with a little green chile on the side). This year's Benchwarmers presents eight one-act plays that range from good to astounding.
This playwright-reviewer has a mild aversion to the popular ten-minute play format. The idea of being asked to write a play that gets in and does what it needs to within a dramaturgically constraining ten-minute framework is a challenge that should be respected, but it isn't a play format (in my humble opinion) that deserves to be so ubiquitous among American theaters, the concept often serving merely to fulfill a theater's publicized commitment to "staging new work." Which is why I like what appears to be the unspoken rule at the Playhouse: "Aim for ten minutes and see what you come up with." I didn't clock the eight plays, but had the sense that only one or two actually played out in around ten minutes. (One of the pieces felt like it ran well over twenty.)
This year's Benchwarmers gala opening night gave us everything from poignant realism to fantasy to science fiction to outrageous comedy. There was an even balance of two-handers and pieces with three and four actors. With the work of eight talented playwrights, eight crackerjack directors, and a cast of nearly twenty (I'm wondering if the dressing rooms of "the oldest continuously running theater west of the Mississippi" might have gotten a little crowded.), it would be difficult in the small space allotted for this review to give a detailed description of each piece. But the evening did offer several stand-out performances and a number of especially noteworthy contributions, and, as a theater critic who rarely gets to review world premieres, I'd be remiss in not giving each of these talented playwrights a tiny bit of due.
In Talia Pura's very funny Meet the Author, directed by Karen Ryan, four actors with the gift of "droll," give us some of the evening's best costumes and props, as self-published and self-promotional authors Roseannamaria, Linda, Jillian, and Marla vie for table space in their city park book-sales effort, and receive hardly a modicum of respect from the morning dog walkers who pass by.
Two pieces, the wickedly inventive sci-fi play Benchportals, by Katie Johnson, and Mark Friedman's clever Waiting for Waiting for Godot (props just for the title!) give us some of the finest performances of the night. In Benchportals, Hamilton Turner and Kendall Mac play a couple who must put their romance on hold as they try to rescue themselves from a Ray Bradbury-inspired time and space maze. In Waiting, the very funny Marty Madden and David Trujillo give us some of the loudest of the evening's LOL moments. Madden and the engaging BJ Stokey, who plays Godot (yes, spoiler alert: in this play Godot actually arrives), are equally well-suited for their parts in John Cullinan's down-and-dirty tale of what happened to the two mice who became Cinderella's magical footmen, appropriately titled For Lack of a Tailthis piece mischievously directed by Gwen Lewis.
All of the directors showed their stuff to a fine degree, but Corbin Albaugh's clockwork pacing of Benchportals, Ron Bloomberg's equally sharply paced comedy machine that was Waiting for Waiting for Godot, and Kathi Collins' deft hand in Jay Schecker's father-vs.-stepfather cage match, One Step Farther, are worth noting. Collins, incidentally, lost one of her actors literally on the eve of tech night, and found in Robert Henkel, Jr. a performer who not only stepped into the role with hours to spare, but, I am told, was off book during the course of a single rehearsal. (See, it doesn't just happen in backstage movie musicals.) Henkel and Iain May, a great actor with a warm Scottish brogue, gave a couple of the most powerful performances of the evening.
Also worth noting is Richard Dargan's sweet celebration of art, as well as the artistry inherent in the melding of human hearts, Still Life with Tulips, directed by Barry Hazen, and featuring two of Santa Fe's best actors, Ruben Muller and Lacy Bingham.
The evening was rounded out by Marguerite Louise Scott's bittersweet play about nascent friendship between a homeless woman and homeless man, The Scorpion and the Songbird (directed by theatrical Renaissance woman Talia Pura), and Dorothy Touches Down, written by veteran Santa Fe playwright Dianna A. Lewis and directed by one of Santa Fe's finest directors, Barbara Hatch.
It isn't hard to see why Santa Fe Playhouse's annual Benchwarmers festival is among the best attended theater offerings in town. It showcases the many talents of this vibrant and gifted theater community. And because so many of the participants have long trod upon all the stages in town (as well as a good number of stages elsewhere), the festival becomes a sort of celebratory homecoming. Even better, the Different Festival doesn't stop here. Benchwarmers gives way to script-in-hand performances of four new full length plays later in the month.
Benchwarmers, is being performed at the Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 East De Vargas Street, Santa Fe NM. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Through October 22, 2017. Information is available at www.santafeplayhouse.org or 505-988-4262. The running time, including intermission, is just under two-and-a-half hours.