Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Playlabs" at the Playwrights' Center

Playlabs. It sounds like a scientific experiment about plays. And it sort of is. While the play-writing process is not as rigorous and clearly defined as the scientific process, there is a process involved in bringing a new play to the stage. The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis is one of the best resources in the country for facilitating that process. Now in their 45th year, they work with 1700 playwrights every year in some capacity. That's a lot of new plays! And while we love our classics, and they're important to keep alive, new works of theater are what keep theater thriving and evolving and moving forward. The 33rd annual Playlabs festival is a week-long celebration of this concept. There are a number of special events during the week, but the focus is on three plays by three playwrights who have the chance to workshop the play with top local talent (actors, directors, and designers) and present two readings to the public. As audience members, this is our chance to be part of the play development process. And it's free! Playlabs ends today, but follow the Playwrights' Center on social media and keep your eye on the "Events" page of their website for more opportunities to see readings of new works, including the upcoming Ruth Easton New Play Series.

I attended readings of two of the three new plays, both of which were entirely satisfying on their own, and also show huge potential that I hope to see realized in a full production sometime in the future. As always, Playwrights' Center partners with fantastic local actors who really bring these stories and characters to life, despite reading from scripts and dealing with last-minute changes. They're guided by our fabulous local directors, and work with designers to get a hint of what a full production might look and feel like. Below is a short description of each new work, plus my thoughts on the two that I saw.

The Remains by Ken Urban, directed by Jeremy Cohen, featuring Damian Baldet, Maulik Pancholy, Sue Scott, Robert Rosen, and Mo Perry
Married for a decade, Kevin and Theo are the ideal couple in the eyes of their families. But at dinner this Sunday, Kevin and Theo have big news. A comedy about the tragedy of loving.

I wasn't able to make it to this one, but I hope to have another chance to see it in the future.

West of Central by Christina Ham, directed by Hayley Finn, featuring Juanita Jennings, Shawn Hamilton, James A. Williams, Thomasina Petrus, Mark Benninghofen, and Mikell Sapp
The year is 1966 and the remnants of the Watts Riots are still smoldering against the backdrop of South Central Los Angeles. When a mysterious man stumbles into the office of private eye Thelma Higgins looking to warn her husband that his life might be in danger, she soon discovers that the man she’s been married to for ten years is not who he claims to be. As her investigation leads her on a tangled trail of deceit, corruption, and treacherous backroom deals, she and her husband must learn to trust one another again to find out who’s trying to kill him and why.

The only thing I know about the genre known as "Noir" is the movie L.A. Confidential and Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir. But this play contains all the elements I expect - the suspense, the mystery, the corruption, the smooth voice-overs. And in an unexpected twist in the genre, the hero detective is a black woman. The play also grapples with ideas of racism, gentrification, and violence in late '60s L.A. Sound designer Andrew Lee Dolan added some elements to help create atmosphere, and I look forward to seeing what this play looks like with period costumes and set, and lighting to further create that noir feeling that already exists in the script.

we, the envisibles by Susan Soon He Stanton, directed by D├ímasco Rodriguez, featuring  Kurt Kwan, Sara Ochs, Nathan Keepers, H. Adam Harris, Adia Morris, and Angela Lin
In 2011, the director of the International Monetary Fund was accused of sexual assault by a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo, but all charges were dismissed. we, the invisibles shares the rarely-heard stories of people like Diallo, people from all over the globe working at New York’s luxury hotels. Funny, poignant, and brutally honest by turns, the play is an investigation of the complicated relationship between movers and shakers and the people who change their sheets.

Rather than focus on the case in question, Susan uses it as a jumping off point for her own miossion to tell the stories of the people she works with at a luxury NYC hotel. She has made herself a character in the play as she interviews her coworkers, many of whom are immigrants from all over the world, and ruminates on her own life and career as well as what a life in the service industry is like, especially when serving the rich and famous. The interview style of the piece, with actors playing multiple characters (which this incredible cast had a lot of fun with), works really well as a reading and not much needs to be added in a full production, although it would be fun to see the actors don costumes or elements that would help to define and specify each character. As the above description notes, we, the invisibles is indeed funny and poignant, and completely engaging.