PlayFest! The Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays
November 2 through 4, 2012
Orlando Shakespeare Center

Orlando Shakespeare Theatre (In Partnership With UCF, if you care) is in the process of moving itself from February to November and reinforcing its beachhead as the cradle of new works by up and coming writers. The February dates tended to clash with some other local events, and the November slot is a little less hectic, it falls into that null between October’s Zombie Marathon and December’s deluge of ghostly redemption and saccharine family reunions. In essence, it’s a more intellectual season and a fine opportunity for us theatre goers to give a little constructive feedback. It’s also a bit of sneak preview; one or more of these shows may end up on next season program. My intention here is not to offer detailed commentary, but highlights of the event. Each show is run once, and it is understood that these are works in progress and authors may make significant revisions before you have another chance to view them.

Leveling Up
by Deb Laufer
Directed by Casey Stangl

What starts out as geeky comedy ends up as a study of insanity derived from the moral ambiguity of a remote control war. Ian (Michael Dritto) is the uber gamer, he makes his living selling double plus good swords and he has the strongest thumb muscles you’ve ever seen. His roommate Zander (Greg Joubert) mooches along but at least he dates a real girl: Jeannie (Danielle Gosselin). She’s the rarest of rare, she, too is a geeky gamer but she seems to prefer sharing consoles with the 4th wheel here, Chuck (Derrick Williams). He has an unusual sense of style, his Yoville pad is the hippest going and he enjoys shopping with women. To prove a point to Zander, Ian takes a job with the NSA driving drones in the hot zone. The difference between World of War Craft and the War on Terror is very slight, and he melts down. Maybe it’s a vitamin D deficiency.

One of the new features of PlayFest is a selection of talk backs. This one is called Three Questions: “What inspired the show? What does the author want to ask the audience? What does the audience want to know?” The give and take was vigorous and positive, there are questions about nitpicky details and a few continuity issues, but overall this is a very promising show. Out on the patio, there’s a little reception. Pay attention and you’ll see the writers heading for the booze, and the actors heading toward the food. See you there tomorrow.

Night Train
by John Biguenet
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge

On one level, this is a sordid little scam, but on another it’s a reflection on happiness and trust and love and all those other nasty little detail s of what makes us “us.” Moderately well-to-do banker Alex Hampton (Mark Brotherton) takes the night train in a Slavic feeling country. He’s alone in First Class until Max (Mark Ferrera) noses in. Max smells like new scams and old cabbage, but Alex is lonely enough to keep up the conversation. Alex reveals a bit too much about himself, drinks suspect whiskey, and is soon enthralled by attractive Marta (Lauren Butler). Well, one thing leads to another, and soon Alex has been bilked out of his money, wife, job, and socks. Believable? Maybe. Possible? Certainly. And it has the best line of the Festival: “She had a face like a manhole cover.”

The Standby Lear
by John W. Lowell
Directed by Jasson Lear

Its drag getting old and an unsuccessful acting career doesn’t help. Augie (Jonathan Epstein) understudies “Lear” but he’s getting a bit forgetful. His faithful but acerbic wife Anna (Anne Herring) arrives with lunch and they run lines until he blanks out and leaves unexpectedly. Other bad news is coming; it looks like it’s his chance to shine tonight but his faith wobbles. How long does he have? You never know, but work is work. The story nicely tracks the original “Lear,” and Epstein’s performance would make a dandy show.

Keynote Address with Jon Jory

Keynote speeches can wander all over the board, but Mr. Jory is an entertaining speaker with a deadpan delivery and sharp comic wit. Tonight he gives a long, meandering family history complete with a grandmother named Cleopatra and a boxer named King Tut, Yukon Gold rush stories and a brief history of how 1400 regional stock theatre companies where virtually wiped out by the talkies. He also has some interesting tales of founding Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven and The Humana Festival in Louisville. He wrapped up with “20 pieces of advice to Playwrights” including such often ignored advice such as “Always have an ending” and “Spending more than a year on a play isn’t writing, it’s OCD.” Good advice, good fun and the price was right.

Tom Jones
By Jon Jory
Directed by Mark Routhier

Wresting a story from a 900 page novel and turning into a tight, funny and sexy two hours takes a master’s skills. Jon Jory pulled it off tonight, with nine actors breaking walls and simulating sex he kept an audience laughing their golf pencils off. More a no budget, no set production than a reading, director Routhier ignored the Playfest policy of “no blocking” and got a huge payoff in return. If you missed the movie and lost your Cliff’s notes, infant Tom Jones is left on a doorstep of a judge, his parentage is doubtful but not his charm; women from school girls to cougars bed him with ease. He doesn’t exactly resists, but he does hold a flame for Sophie and after duels and trysts and a close call on the gallows the pair are happily wed.

With fast paced direction and scenes as short as 3 lines, this show might be impossible to fully stage without losing its kinetic momentum. But as a zero frills comedy with a voice over reading stage direction and brilliant comic actors charging full speed into the lusty past, it’s as funny as anything I’ve seen on the Margeson stage.

Connected By Lia Romeo
Directed by Michael Marinaccio

Here’s another internet heavy production, although it’s less apocalyptic than “Level Up.” Despite the title, these for vignettes have only the loosest association. The first segment has an awkward high school girl performing an awkward strip tease to win a boy. An unauthorized video goes viral, she’s on TV the next day, and next thing you know she’s going to prom with Justin Timberlake. Beyond that, she’s an awkward and lonely as before.

Only the terminally uncool aren’t in World of Warcraft, here a burnt out computer programmer hooks up with an underage battle pattern in real life, leaving her burned by her own deceptions

Next some valley Girl types get stuck in a dead post prom party where they meet a guy who (gasp) isn’t on Facebook! They’re out of phase with the truly cool kids, and aren’t wise enough to hang out with anyone with fewer than 800 friends on FB.

The Last segment explores the potential for inappropriate liaison between a lonely high school teacher and one of her students. He’s willing to wait her out, after he’s seen her boobs on line. She wisely declines, but thanks him for the compliment.

While well written and produced, these shows seem perfect for a low budget fringe production than a full up set in the Goldman. The play resembles Almost Maine”; people are put in awkward situations and then given a soft ware out without any rancor or bitterness from the author. However, large parts of the story are built on hot technologies that might not be so hot in five years, and has the potential to become dated quickly. Was IS Justin T up to these days?

Three Wolves and a Lamb
by Yussef El Guindi
Directed by Laurel Clark

I went into this sex farce expecting a chewy lecture on Arab Israeli relations, and left with one of the best pieces of stage direction this week. Idris (Jon Beshara) hails from West Bank, his wife Rachel (Sara Oliva) is more a Tel Aviv girl. They met protesting each other, but the sex overcame all those endless debates about partition and the Gaza Strip. They are planning a weekend long meet up for war ravaged children with exciting events like “Finger Painting for Jews and Arabs” and “Conflict Resolution Through Mime.” Peace Facilitator Tom (John Connon) slathers New Age Self-help Corporate Newspeak on the problem, and his toasty hot wife Francine (Melanie Whipple) brings the slightly inappropriate art work. Turns out there some Payton Place action here, and while the Bacon Exclusion act of 4000 B.C. applies to both Idris and Rachel, they love ribs but eschew carbs. I have no idea how they will ever stage the paint ball orgy, but the stage direction you don’t want to miss is: (THEY FREEZE AND CONSIDER THEIR SEX AND CARBO OPTIONS). This may not end sectarian violence, but if it gets people screwing instead of bombing, they’ve made progress.

The Cortez Method
by Rob Keefe
Directed by John DiDonna

They saved the most brutal for last. Bill (Phillip Nolen) and Sara (Suzanne O’Donnell) want a baby, badly, and that’s how they get one. Bill’s dead beat brother Water (Kenny Babel) appears in search of $30k to buy a welding truck and a peek at his family heritage. Too bad all Bill’s money is tied up in a kitchen remodel and now that Sara is preggers, he’s been doing shift work transporting Hillbilly Heroin around the Southeast. There’s way more screaming on stage than you need to feel the anger here, and I never seen Mr. Nolen commit a capital offence on stage before, but tonight he stumbles across that boundary. Crossbreed “Virginia Woolf” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” and add a few quarts of blood and there you have “Cortez Method.”

For more information on PlayFest! and other Orlando Shakespeare Festival projects visit

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