Story: The third annual LaBute New Theater Festival features several one-act plays by playwrights whose works were selected from among more than 250 submissions sent to St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Writers from Canada, New Zealand, Wales and throughout the United States prepared brief (15 minutes or so) pieces for consideration by a creative team that includes renowned playwright Neil LaBute and William Roth, founder and artistic director of St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Others involved in the selection process are actors, writers and teachers Milton Zoth, Erin Kelley, Edward Scott Ibur, John Pierson, B. Weller, Elizabeth Helman, Patrick Huber and Chris Limber.
Each of the two parts of the festival features an original work titled Kandahar by LaBute that is performed at the beginning of the evening. Additionally, staged readings of works by high school finalists will be directed by local actor Steve Isom and performed Saturday, July 25.
Highlights: Watching the production on opening night left the impression that this year’s edition of the LaBute New Theater Festival -- at least the first segment -- is more polished and fulfilling than previous editions, which were good in their own right. While there are a couple of hiccups, in general these are clever yarns that show promise and potential by the playwrights to tell compelling stories.
Other Info: By far the best piece among the six in Part I of the LaBute Festival is LaBute’s own vignette, Kandahar. A soldier (New York actor and St. Louis native Michael Hogan) sits in an interrogation room, calmly describing in chilling detail how he murdered his wife and several of his fellow GIs at a local base after his return to America.
He seems reasonable and intelligent, albeit someone with a few quirky observations about women. When he addresses the reason he’s in the room, though, he makes disturbingly rational points about the inability to leave the terrors of the battlefield behind in faraway places. Hogan’s performance is alarmingly precise and penetrating under John Pierson’s measured direction, leaving one wondering where and when the next mass killing will occur.
Mark Young’s story, Custom, is a touching tale about a young man (Nathan Bush) who visits an elderly merchant (GP Hunsaker) in New York City’s jewelry district. After asking several questions about the value of some assorted merchandise he’s brought to the store, the customer casually reveals his own somewhat tormented life to the kindly jeweler.
Young adds a neat little twist at the conclusion that intelligently makes the story plausible and thus that much more poignant. Christopher Limber’s studied direction allows Bush and Hunsaker to reveal their characters’ personalities naturally and convincingly in affecting fashion.
Cold in Hand, by Steve Apostolina, is about a young, white teen plucking his guitar on a city street and ostensibly singing some blues. He’s approached by a blind, older black man who sizes him up and strikes a quick friendship. The script makes a clever point about how all of us can assume something about another person that may not be true, and it has a sweet center and an upbeat ending. Limber’s direction is easy-going and the rapport between Rynier Gaffney as the teen and Don McClendon as the savvy blind singer is satisfying.
In Stand Up for Oneself by Lexi Wolfe, a young woman enters a side room at a party that appears to be somewhere in London. She strikes up a conversation with a middle-age man sitting alone. He has a cane at his side to help him navigate on his feet and a quick mouth to put up defenses against encroaching outsiders.
Despite Luke’s cynical posture, Lila perseveres in her friendliness. She’s far from naïve, and she knows how cruel and uncertain the world can be. Perhaps because of that she is able to coax Luke a little bit out of his shell as she reveals not only his vulnerability but hers, too. Pierson’s direction is carefully calibrated, while the performances by Alicia Smith and Bush reveal two people tentatively taking another chance at life.
In A Stranger Here Myself, a recently divorced woman named Patricia prepares nervously in her hotel room for a big business presentation in the morning. As she obsesses about her new responsibilities, for which her ex-husband had neither interest nor appreciation, she slips into sleep, ready for an erotic dream to climax her evening.
To her surprise, her long-time fantasy, a handsome young man named Shane, goes through the motions and dialogue that he complains reek of monotony. He welcomes Bruce, her cad of an ex, as well as Chelsea, a neighbor whom Patricia considers a slut, to her abducted fantasy in quest of forbidden pleasures. With her subconscious in revolt, Patricia protests to regain her boring, nocturnal life.
Rick Orloff’s script is amusing in its concept and performed humorously by Jenny Smith as the predictable Patricia, Paul Cereghino as her restless fantasy man, McClendon as her rakish ex-husband and Stephanie Benware as the lusty Chelsea, all under Pierson’s guidance.
The least successful piece is Chris Holbrook’s A Taste of Heaven. This one-joke comedy focuses on an indifferent bureaucrat (Kevin Minor) who is not convinced when an older woman (Nancy Crouse) complains to him that she has been declared dead by the government and cut off from her benefits.
Recent national headlines indicate that this has actually happened to real people and it certainly isn’t funny to them, although Holbrook’s idea is clever to an extent. The problem is that the exaggeration increases exponentially while the accompanying humor fades in direct proportion. Director B. Weller and his capable cast comprised of Minor, Crouse and Rhyan Robinson do what they can, but A Taste of Heaven is pretty flat.
The vignettes occur on Patrick Huber’s appropriately simple and neutral set that can accommodate a variety of scenes, lit by Huber and Dalton Robinson. Carla Landis Evans provides costumes that nicely fit various characters, while Pierson, Limber and Weller add astute sound designs to the works they direct.
The festival continues through August 2, with LaBute scheduled to attend the performances on July 24 and 25. It certainly is worth your time.
Plays: LaBute New Theater Festival, Part I
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: July 16, 17, 18, 19
Tickets: $30-$35; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb