An update: It's women's time to shine at BoxFest

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 17 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 six plays) the first weekend and two "boxes" (and six more plays) on separate days the next. (You'll find my short reviews of each below.) John Quinn reviewed Box 3 on the second weekend and had so much fun he stayed for more!

Which leaves one "box" - which we hope to catch over the closing weekend.

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 2

Playwright Audra Lord takes internet dating and stalking to a new level with her amusing comedy "Boys, Meet Girl." A young woman is harassed by someone who not only sends her unsolicited love notes, he's also gained access into her home where he leaves a voodoo Barbie doll made with cuttings from her hair. But Kelly is in for a double surprise when she learns who her stalker is - and why! Director Lyndsay Michalik keeps the story moving along, but Emily Tipton somewhat underplays the role of the victim, which keeps the audience from seeing the full range of emotions she experiences throughout her ordeal. Her "suitors" (Andy Orscheln and Lorenzo Toia) are perfectly nebbish, though.

There are two short plays titled "Flowers" this year, and the version written by Hillary Sea Bard references a vase of blooms placed center stage that suffers a rather ignoble death in the opening moments of the show. Lucy (Alysia Kolascz) comes home from college with a surprise for her parents: her girlfriend Aggie (Megan Johnson). But since Lucy's mother is apparently not going to like the surprise very much, a very scared Aggie drinks way too much alcohol - which she recycles into the vase immediately upon their arrival. Twice. And their very short stay goes swiftly downhill from there! Both the script and the production left me rather unsatisfied, as we're given very little (if any) evidence WHY Lucy's mother has been given her awful reputation - and why Aggie should be so scared of her. Nor do we know for sure that Lucy's family is oblivious to the fact that she's a lesbian. (The surprise could be anything from Aggie's ethnicity or religion to her choice in shoes - not that her daughter is in a relationship with a woman.) Director Jess Preville also missed a few "little things" while staging the show. For example, one might expect Aggie would need a little cleaning up after tossing her cookies a couple of times. (There's a reference much later about "chunks" in her hair, but we don't see them, and I don't recall anything being done about it. But I could have missed it because the two were briefly blocked from view by the people sitting in front of me.) And I would also think that Aggie's breath wouldn't warrant a close face-to-face discussion the lovers have immediately after the projectiles fly without SOME sort of negative reaction by Lucy. (That comes later, too.)

"You?" offers a very intriguing variation of a story told many times: that of "the other woman." In Angie Ransdell's tale, a lothario named Donald is seemingly two-timing his wife. But in this case, the "other woman" is a cross-dresser named Patrice (Richie Rollins). A knock on Patrice's door reveals Janet (Laura Kopytek), who Patrice - getting ready for a night out - assumes is Donald's wife. Both are in for quite a surprise! Whereas playwright Ransdell delivers an imaginative script, director Ransdell plays it too safe with its delivery. Kopytek's initial reaction to meeting Patrice is too underplayed - too calm, not enough shock - which results in little growth and change that we should see by play's end. (And her "business" wandering around Patrice's room occasionally took focus away from Patrice where it belonged at the time.) Rollins - a very masculine, solidly built man - played Patrice against type (except for a swishy walk to answer the door, which was never seen again). This worked fine - he wasn't totally in character yet. But once the wig was on and he was heading out to the bar, "Patrice" should have kicked in and left the male persona behind.

Box 3 - Reviewed by John Quinn

As faithful readers you already know about the festival of plays, directed by women, now in rotation at The Furniture Factory. What you don't know yet is how tough it is for a director to deliver a cogent point of view in the period of time that these short-short one acts allow. In many cases, the director's success depends more upon the structure of the material than on her creative talents.

So short are these scenes that the earlier the audience understands the action, the better the entertainment experience. Comedy is going to be easier to "sell" because a plot driven by situation need not have deeply drawn characters, location or motivation. The playwright can rely more on archetypes than originality.

This mix of drama and comedy is a satisfying stew, and each part brings a distinct flavor to the palate. In fact, BoxFest is so tasty I overstayed my welcome and saw more shows than I needed to review. It's as addictive as browsing viral videos on YouTube, but a lot classier. The fact that these 16 directors are so good when so new to this end of show business means theater in Detroit can only get better!

There are some morsels to savor. "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Jacquelyn Priskorn is probably one of the tougher challenges a director could face. The drama opens eerily on a draped corpse and single mourner. We know nothing about either; even the location is uncertain. We can finally infer that our characters, Arlo (Kevin Barron) and Zoe (Cara Trautman), may be the sole survivors of an unidentified pandemic in some dystopic parallel universe. They're living in a funeral parlor with the body of Arlo's lover, Brian (Sean Paraventi), who might have been one of the first victims. Dialogues by nature are static, and this one is no exception. "There Will Come Soft Rains" is an emotionally charged piece. While director Kennikki Jones makes an admirable effort to draw us into Arlo and Zoe's emotional orbit, the playwright does not seem to have given her the time or material to properly develop the characters.

"Wonder" by Kelly Rossi is an audience favorite. The naughty comedy features Megan Amadon and Angie Ransdell as two friends in an airport, killing time before a flight indulging in random chatter. The "wondering" angle comes in as they speculate what it's like to have a penis. I will let you "wonder" from there. This is another static dialogue, and director Katie Galazka tries to liven up the action. Some of the blocking is unnecessary, since the audience is more interested in what we're hearing than what we're seeing. The writing is crisp and wicked, which added a little spice to the performance.

A larger, more elaborate "dramedy" is John Wencel's "Flowers," directed by Kristen Wagner. The play is slightly longer, and the playwright has better outlined the characters. He has given the director a good handle on the plot. The setting is immediately understood: Beth Grayson (Linda Rabin Hammell) is a star whose twinkle is dimming. Stuck in the dressing room of a daily soap opera studio, her boredom is interrupted by the entrance of an adoring fan (Greg Prusiewicz). "Bobby" however, has secrets to share. Wagner brings an element of slapstick to the play that works very well - so well, in fact, the piece could have been more over the top without becoming campy.

Box 4:

Scripts with surprise twists are popular features of this year's BoxFest, and Hillary Sea Bard's "Bar Reading" is among the best. A woman (Alysia Kolascz) is sitting in a bar reading a book and drinking a cup of coffee when a slick operator (Maxim Hunt) spots her and swoops in with not-so-creative opening lines. But he's cute and persistent, so the woman relents and the two strike up a conversation. Soon, one of them regrets they ever met! Director Sarah Lucas unfolds the story with near precision, and each of the actors offers a performance that perfectly sets up the ending.

If nothing else, "God Needs Jumper Cables" wins the award for Best Show Title. It's a funny existential comedy in which playwright Andy Olesko ponders a question I suspect each of us has thought about at one time or other: Are we nothing more than characters in someone else's story? That's what it seems to Chris (Joe Kvoriak) and Vince (Pat Hanley) when their humdrum lives take a weird turn - thanks to a writer named Andy (voiced by Kevin Barron) who asks Vince to tape record the two friends' conversations. Then there's an appearance by God (Ron Morelli) for no particular reason. To be honest, the play is not very interesting until Andy and God come along - which, I suspect is one of the points of the piece - but director Angie Kane Ferrante coordinates the comings and goings with finesse.

The most literate play I've seen at BoxFest this year is "Upon the Heath" by David P. Wahr, in which four women from various Shakespearean plays find themselves in a meadow - or heath, as Lady Macbeth insists - where they compare notes about men and life. But that's not ALL that's on the agenda - although one of them is unaware of that fact! Despite the lack of action in this rather chatty play, director Frannie Shepherd-Bates keeps the audience focused and attentive thanks to the engaging performances of her actresses. That's especially true of Lisa Melinn, who has all sorts of fun playing with and exploring one of the Bard's most interesting women, Lady Macbeth. Those who know the characters and the plays they come from will especially appreciate the humor Wahr scatters throughout the script.

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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