5/6/16 WAGNER NEW PLAY FESTIVAL
What’s really on the minds of young people? The Wagner New Play Festival at UC San Diego is a great way to find out. The 2016 incarnation of the wild display of imagination, this Festival is the first since benefactor Arthur Wagner, founding chair of the UCSD Theatre Department, passed away last September at age 92. His beloved wife, Molli, will be there to hold down the ‘theater angel’ fort.
I’ve only seen two of this year’s crop of five new works so far, but they’re impressive, and I wanted to get the word out early. All the plays are world premieres, written by talented MFA playwrights, and directed, acted, stage-managed and designed by MFA students, who come here already equipped with notable credentials.
“Go. Please. Go.” by Emily Feldman, is a comic and sometimes not-so-comical take on long-term relationships.
Emily and Jeremy have been together for five years. They agree that “this isn’t working.” So he decides to move out. But he can’t find an apartment. So he stays. Time moves on (as we’re informed in projections like “a year.” or “a month”). Jeremy keeps staying, through Emily’s dalliance with another woman, and then with another man, whom she ultimately marries and has a son with. Jeremy is there, in the room (a completely beige-carpeted domicile — walls, floor and, if it had one, ceiling, in a design created by Charlie Icha), through courtship, wedding, birth, bar mitzvah, the whole shebang. He’s always there in the corner.
There are celebrations (with humorous, angular – if unnecessary — choreography by Katherine Ko), and deaths (intriguingly directed by Will Detlefsen). There are issues of mothers and religion, appearance, friendship, compatibility and what constitutes family.
There’s a fine line between fanciful, farcical, whimsical and silly. And it’s tricky to add in earnestness or gravitas. Feldman almost achieves the precarious balance. It’s a fun journey, thanks to some excellent performances.
At the center, Sean McIntyre and Zora Howard (both second-year MFAs) are appealing and engaging. (Howard, with directing credits and a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale, is also a wonderful dancer). As “The Other Man,” Andrew, as well as his son, Howard, Kyle Hester (a first-year MFA, graduate of NYU’s Tisch School, with training at the Stella Adler Studio and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, aka RADA), is adorable and irresistible, with his boyish energy and puppyish charm. The rest of the cast (Sarah Gray, Heather O’Sullivan, Claire Roberson, Wylie Simpson, Sophia Oberg) play multiple roles, from friends to lovers to mothers.
When it comes to the cycle of life, there’s something here just about anyone can relate to.
Additional performances: 7:30pm May 6, 7 and 13, and 2pm May 14, in the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre.
“Damascus,” by Bennett Fisher, is a must-see.
The intense drama concerns homegrown terrorists and American Muslims and cops and bigots and immigrants and lots more, in a tense, sometimes hair-raising 80-minute journey that takes some very unpredictable turns. Perhaps the unexpected outcome is a bit of wishful thinking, but sometimes, there is justice — and just deserts.
Fisher, who is about to graduate from UCSD, has had his plays produced at the Kennedy Center MFA Playwrights Workshop, Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, the WoW Festival at La Jolla Playhouse, the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City and two San Francisco-based companies with which he’s associated: Campo Santo and Cutting Ball. He’s also served as an actor, director and dramaturg.
His dialogue is rough and realistic. Faculty director Charlie Oates, a specialist in movement, has made the physicality (and fighting) of the work palpably real. He’s also chosen a superb cast.
DeLeon Dallas, a first-year MFA (and college football player), appeared last year in a hilarious turn as Frederick Douglass in “Honky” at the San Diego Rep (in a knockout production that was televised on PBS). In “Damascus” (a small town about 120 miles east of Chicago), he plays Hassan, a Somalia-born Muslim who drives a van at the Twin-Cities airport. He’s deep in debt and struggling to get by. Then, a young, antsy, near-hysterical white kid bangs on his window and offers him lots of cash to be driven to the Chicago airport, so he can go home to Ukiah, CA, where his mother is dying.
This is a serious quandary for Hassan, who needs the dough but knows what he may be doing is totally against the rules, and could lose him his license and his van. He asks for double what the kid has offered and takes the gambit. It turns out to be one helluva ride, with twists, turns, near accidents, horrific revelations and the threat of death all along the way. Not to mention questions of morality and superiority, entitlement and racial inequality. Kimberly Monks is fine in four different roles (her costumes, by Karen Wang, are noteworthy).
The kid, DeBrie, is played with astonishing skill by Andrew Gallop, a 22 year-old first year MFA student with a BFA in musical theatre from the University of Oklahoma. Although he just graduated last year, he has already appeared in concert at 54 Below in New York, and in William H. Macy’s directorial debut film, “Rudderless.” This kid is going places.
He’s terrifying as DeBrie, a bundle of nerves, anxiety, threats and confusion. He goes head-to-head and mano a mano with Hassan, until Hassan finally fully scopes him out, and things start to take a different turn.
It’s a terrific ride, with seemingly simple but excellent design work on the set (another Charlie Jicha creation), lighting (Brandon Rosen), and sound (Crystal Chan). This play should have a life beyond school – and it will. I strongly urge you to see it while you can.
Four more performances: 2pm May 7; 7:30pm May 11 and 12; 7pm May 15, in the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre. Some shows are already sold out.. so hurry.
TICKETS, ranging from $10-20, are available Monday-Friday, 12-6pm at the box office (at the Potiker Theatre) or at 858-534-4574. At-the-door tickets, if available, can be purchased one hour before showtime at the box office at the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
© 2016 Pat Launer, San Diego Theater Reviews