It’s one thing to go see a famous play or work. And it’s another to go see an original work written and directed by a playwright who’s still unknown and so close to my own age. A variety of original works were assembled by the students of the University of Redlands Theatre Arts Department for the New Works Festival of 2015 last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
The excitement was tangible in the Frederick Loewe Theatre. The chatter of fellow students, friends, family, and faculty filled the room as showtime neared. A little after 2pm, the lights slowly dimmed upon the audience while the spotlight remained shining down on center stage. The director of the festival and adjunct professor, Ashley Sparks, stepped onto the illuminated stage and thanked everyone for coming out to support the students of the Theatre Arts Department.
Sparks explained that these four pieces are from four different time periods and the content is “all about love”. She explains that some actors/actresses will have stands and scripts out because the script may have been rewritten just the day before because the works are ever-evolving.
“Stalled,” written by Jessica Ackerson, was a serious yet humorous work about a woman who goes on a road trip with a friend to avoid having to respond to her boyfriend’s proposal. The profanity and puppet-filled work was well-acted and portrayed by actresses Sarah Smallman (playing Sharlene), Allison Torrance (playing Harper), and actor Esat Rexhepi (playing Jack and Dad). The two friends find themselves stalled in the middle of the woods and in the middle of a decision. Harper is unsure as to whether or not she should agree to marry Jack. Her reluctance is so realistic that the audience feels they are making the choice with her. The passion with which the actors spoke and the use of the sounds really brought the whole piece together nicely! The inclusion of voicemails from Dad and the re-emergence of the flip phone added a sprinkle of charm to the piece as a whole.
The second work, “First Time,” written by Lilian Mitrev, was set in 1953. Since the New Works Festival is all about love, it must be about the first time a young couple gets it on, right? Nope. The audience is pleasantly (or not so pleasantly) surprised that the young couple, James (played by Kevin Mitchell) and Alice (played by Lise Laerdal Bryn), are not planning a typical romantic night alone. They are, in fact, planning for a steamy, intimate night murdering two people in James’ basement. Creepy, right? But I guess no love is like the next. I especially loved the portrayal of a reluctant, yet enthusiastic girl by Bryn and the portrayal of a cool and charming boy by Mitchell. The excitement felt from ‘young love,’ coupled with the excessive, unsexy licking between the couple turns a seemingly light-hearted and awkward play into something dark or kinky. Whether dark or kinky will depend entirely on the audience’s interpretation. The twist at the end was definitely memorable and hilarious.
Next, Julia Smith walks through a door to perform “Semicolons,” written and collaborated on by Amanda Speidel, Alyssa Reamy, Julia Smith, and the creative team. The bright colors and bouncy way she walks makes me giggle. Emma, played by Julia Smith, sits at her table in front of the audience, now students. The kindergarten teacher teaches her audience about when to use periods, commas, quotations, semicolons, and unintentionally interlaces her love life into the lesson. The semicolon cleverly serves as a representation of Emma’s hope for a new beginning after a failed relationship. Emma curses, yells, sings, and rhymes her way through her disappointment and decides it’s time to do something for herself. The stage setup is simple yet complete with a chalkboard and a messy desk full of objects and Smith does a fantastic job portraying the quirky, bitter, and artistic Emma. The original work is clever, funny, and full of heart and heartbreak.
The last piece is called “The House,” written by Mariah Kennedy. The audience is warned that there will be loud noises and explicit material within the drama. The scene begins with Lily, played by Arianne Irucuta, rocking in her rocking chair outside the house, tightly wrapped in her cardigan and her fear. The whole set is dimly lit, creating an ominous atmosphere with shadows and darkness. The overall story tells of a captive husband that tries to trap and fit his wife into his image of the ‘perfect family’ he never had. She is enclosed in his fantasy and struggles to get the courage to leave the house and the relationship. “The House” kept audience members on the edge of their seats with intense action and spine-chilling silence. Goosebumps formed on my skin and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. A silhouette of a woman, played by Allison Torrance, appears above the main stage as another layer in the overall meaning of the piece, and adds to the dark and creepiness of it all. Shadows of men, created by Kevin Mitchell and Esat Rexhepi, creep upon the walls of the theatre as a menace that threatens to enclose the married couple and the audience. The fear and suspense hung heavily in the air throughout. The work was so intricately layered, that individuals in the audience had different opinions as to what actually happened in the work. Kennedy explains that what happened isn’t as important to her as the meaning behind the work. This piece was well-done and the parts that really struck me were the uses of lighting and images upon the walls. I kept swiveling my eyes around the stage in paranoia, hoping to catch a shadow before it caught me. The piece was gripping to the point of suffocation, and caused many audience members, including myself, to jump out of our seats from fear. The intricate work is portrayed with fantastic acting, excellent images, and as promised, loud noises.
This festival was for new playwrights to exercise their writing and directing skills. After each work was performed, the playwright and Sparks asked questions about what the audience thought about the works. The New Works Festival is a great idea that allows playwrights, cast members, and crew to grow.
The festival was an amazing experience. The students here are so hardworking and talented and I’m very, very excited to see how these students’ works will evolve in the future. All the works presented in the New Works Festival were well-prepared and fantastic in their own ways, and it’s safe to say that the festival was a smashing success!
[Image courtesy of Redlands Assets]