At the beginning of the one-act that closes the first set of the Play by Play festival, graduate student Ethan (Timothy W. Hull) stands downstage, eagerly enunciating every syllable. His eyes and vowels seem to glow as Middlesex College professor Barbara (Louise Pillai) lectures on “received pronunciation,” that poncey BBC speech that Monty Python loved to mock. Ethan is enraptured with his prim and crisp professor’s cultivated speech: “Everything is pushed forward in Barbara’s mouth,” he almost salivates to the audience as her dowel rod pointer snaps crisply over the pronunciation charts projected upstage. So when the married professor steps from the shadow of propriety and reveals the lust is mutual, the The Claw of the Schwa takes a quirky twist: “Did you know the ‘schwa’ is the most-often repeated vowel in an orgasm?” the linguist cougar purrs to Ethan, her pointer lightly tapping her open, upturned palm, before demanding, “Fuck me Miles” (her pet name for Ethan) in a suddenly flat, suburban intonation. And there’s the rub; despite Professor Barbara’s vigorous physical expostulations, Ethan is aroused only when he hears her “received pronunciation.” Fans of David Ives’ one-acts will revel in the resulting laughter.
Always surprising, Stageworks/Hudson’s annual Play by Play festival of new one-acts is now in its 15th year; the latest incarnation offers the usual mix of the comforting, old-fashioned, maudlin, funny, avant garde, and quirky. It’s like an entire year of regional theater in a two-hour (or two-and-a-half if there are “technical difficulties” with Skype: see below) package. But even if the occasional one-act is conventional or pretentious or just muddled, Play by Play is a unique, not-to-be missed buffet. No theater in the area offers such boldness. This year’s nominal theme, Shadows, brings the eclectic mix into full light through a medley of directing choices ably executed by artistic director Laura Margolis and Stageworks/Hudson newcomer John Sowie.
While none of the other seven plays match The Claw of the Schwa’s rich linguistic and physical humor, each enriches the others, and the festival as a whole successfully bridges a broad range of styles, in both subject and stagecraft.
In the opening one-act, The Loyalist, Jesse Waldinger’s conventional biographical sketch of 18th century Scottish patriot Flora MacDonald (Louise Pillai), the heroine celebrates with song and Scottish dance after they escape the British army after by disguising the would-be Scottish king as a French maid. But the quirk of The Loyalist is that it actually focuses on MacDonald’s life in America, married to a Loyalist officer of the British army—35 years after she saved the rebel prince. Fans of Turner Classic Films and George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple will applaud the subject and style of The Loyalist.
The second-set opener, Yusef El-Guindi’s The Review, is, both in stagecraft and subject, Shadows’ most adventurous one-act. Set simultaneously in Los Angeles and Cairo, Egypt, the play centers on the Skype communication between short-story writer Ratib (Hull again who displays a solid range of accents and mannerisms that not only make each character he plays distinct, but believable and supportive of each play) and his would-be Egyptian girlfriend/editor Shadiyah (Bavani Selvarajh), who is reviewing his latest stories during the recent “Arab Spring” uprising. Beyond the topicality, what’s most engaging here is the staging: Rahib sits downstage left at a table talking to his laptop while Shadiyah’s image is projected on an upstage screen. While an initial snafu caused The Review to begin with just Ratib talking to his computer as Shadiyah’s voice came out of the void, the technical difficulties eventually were resolved and the play started anew.
Stageworks/Hudson has always pushed the envelope on staging and contemporary subject and, in The Review, what would otherwise be a bit of conventional online narcissism becomes, through Margolis’ staging, an engaging polemic on U.S.-Arab relationships, as well as male-female intimacies (or lack thereof).