It's women's time to shine at BoxFest - Part 1

By Donald V. Calamia

Each summer, women directors from throughout Southeast Michigan come together to showcase their talents in an annual festival called BoxFest Detroit. The event has morphed over the years from a one-weekend and six-play affair in Ann Arbor called "Pandora's Box Fest" to this year's three-weekend extravaganza at The Furniture Factory on the fringe of Wayne State University's campus in Detroit that features 18 plays by Michigan playwrights. But one thing hasn't changed despite its various permutations: The participating women work hard at creating their best work - and for some, their efforts pay off as they move from relative obscurity to paid directorial gigs at one (or more) of the area's professional theaters. (A few have even gotten into grad school based in part on their work with BoxFest.)

This year's festival, under the leadership of Artistic Director Molly McMahon and Executive Director Kelly Rossi (and their team of producers, designers and jacks of all trades), is the most ambitious yet. Spread out over a single weekend, theatergoers can check out a dozen-and-a-half short plays, the topics of which cover the spectrum of ideas and styles. (The plays are grouped into six "boxes" that rotate throughout each weekend.) As you would expect, some are slick and expertly produced, while others are rough around the edges - but that's what makes BoxFest such an exciting event to attend each year: That over time, we get the privilege of watching these talented women mature as directors.

What we also get to see - especially THIS year - are unfamiliar faces on the BoxFest stage. In the past, BoxFest seemed to attract a hardy, hard-working but mostly familiar contingent of thespians who came together mostly to help out their friends. This year, however, the BoxFest ladies have apparently reached outside their familiar territories and brought in many new faces - both behind the scenes as directors and on the stage. (In fact, at the two sessions I've been to this year, I've had several people come up to me, point to someone and ask, "Who's THAT?" And I hadn't a clue!) That too is an important part of the event's evolution, one I hope to see continue in the years ahead.

So with 18 plays this year, how did we tackle reviewing them? To be honest, that's still a work in progress. Last summer, fellow critic D. A. Blackburn and I spent several hours over the first weekend catching all 14 plays. This year, however, because of the increased number of shows, a heavy review schedule outside of BoxFest and limited critic availability (it's vacation time, you know!), I was able to attend only two "boxes" (and 6 plays) this weekend. (You'll find my short reviews of each below.) Next weekend, though, we plan to have one or two critics catch as many of the rest as they possibly can - and you'll find their thoughts here shortly afterwards.

Box 1:

The first show of the first box is its weakest. "A Mugging" by Ian Bonner and Marty Shea is a cute look at what happens when a mugger unexpectedly meets his match. There's an interesting "turn-around" that happens in the script, but director Jackie Strez and actors Torri Ashford (Shana) and Nick Pobutsky (Mugger) fail to come out of the gate with strong personalities that adequately set up the surprise twist ending. Furthermore, as staged by Strez, the story should have been over only minutes after it started, since the blocking gave Shana an early opportunity or two to beat the stuffing out of the bad guy without risking her own safety. But, of course, that wasn't in the script.

"The Reckless Romantic" is an O. Henry-ish tale by Jacquelyn Priskorn with a surprise ending I didn't see coming. The son of a millionaire has only a month left in which to get married or he'll lose his inheritance. The problem, though, is that his last three fiances all died mysteriously - which makes potential fiance number four, his maid, wonder about her own chances of walking down the aisle! Given the short time frame in which BoxFest shows are rehearsed, director Kathleen Leitz played it mostly safe with her chuckle-filled production. A sub-plot about an umbrella could have been much more outlandish (and funnier) had more time been allotted to safely work out complicated physical comedy. But John Nowaczyk was spot on as Dobbins the butler (one of the best performances of the night), and Lesley Braden-Phillips as the shaken-up maid Mary was also fine. And you just KNEW that mild-mannered and somewhat flighty Paul as played by Gary Castaneda COULDN'T have killed all those women, right? Or DID he?

The final show of the block is its slickest - which isn't a surprise, given the experience of most of its participants. Kitty Dubin's "The Other Side" brings a young woman to the Amazing Fred, a rather unorthodox fellow who claims to be able to talk to the dead. Beth and her mother had harsh words on the night mom died, and now, a year later, she wants to apologize. It's a touching script thoughtfully brought to life by Debbie Lannen. Longtime veterans (but rarely seen on Metro Detroit's professional stages these days) Joe Lannen (Fred) and Barbara Bloom (Mom) are delightful in their roles, with Joe Lannen's very naturalistic style serving his character well. And the emotional pain Ashley Shamoon's Beth exhibits is thoroughly believable.

Box 6:

Another favorite comedy of the evening was "The Meek Shall Inherit" by Jaqcuelyn Priskorn. Set in a retirement home, three elderly ladies get together for their regular game of cards - but their fourth is late. So, of course, they talk about her (and her family) behind her back. But their tunes change when they discover WHY Mary is late! Director K. Edmonds has assembled a fine trio of women who roll or slowly shuffle into the game room and create wonderfully expressive characters. Given the situation, there's not much action in the scene, but the character-driven piece doesn't need much. So kudos to the wonderful Connie Cowper (Gwen), Sarah Wilder (Louise) and Debra "Rockey" Rockey for creating such colorful seasoned citizens!

The block takes a very serious turn with "Sun Trust" by Linda Lazar Curatolo. When the economy tanked years ago, a family uprooted from Michigan to Tennessee so that the husband could take a job at Saturn. Now, years later, the couple's son wants to buy a home, and so he asks his dad for a loan. That simple request opens a can of worms that threatens to tear the family apart. Although the pacing was a bit slow to build according to the emotional turmoil of the script, director LoriGoe Perez has staged a heart-wrenching tale that elicited many vocal responses from the audience - aimed primarily at actor Wesley Whittaker who creates one of the most despicable and easy-to-hate characters I've seen in ages, Jerry, the father of Cory (Patrick Hanley) and husband of Nancy (Debra "Rockey" Rockey). It's a superb performance, perfectly underplayed to maximize its power and effect.

The most unique play of the block is "get (t)his" by Nicole Young, a stylized and stylish piece about what black women want in and from a black man - and how they react when they find him with a white woman. It's a razor-sharp look at stereotypes, relationships, expectations, guns and shopping, with an ending that will likely elicit lively conversation in YOUR home as it did among my friends at a late-night dinner following the performance. Director Sharon L. Brooks kept the show moving, while Alaina Fleming (Woman 1) and Kennikki Jones (Woman 2) found all sorts of entertaining ways to keep their thoroughly self-centered characters from becoming unlikable.

REVIEW:

'BoxFest Detroit 2010'

At The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd St., Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Aug. 21. $10 per day or $30 festival pass. http://www.boxfestdetroit.com

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