KPBS AIRDATE: April 23, 2004
If you want to get a glimpse of the theatrical future, check out the Baldwin New Play Festival at UCSD. Each year, the Festival features world premiere productions written, directed and designed by the talented, nationally-acclaimed MFA students at UCSD. These are no green neophytes; each of the trainees in these prestigious, specialized, 3-year graduate programs comes in with an already-impressive résumé. As usual, these young theatermakers have a lot on their minds. This year’s plays are less about politics than society — poverty and wealth, art, religion, ethics, morality. And love.
All of them are beautifully designed, excellently directed and outstandingly acted. It’s not for nothing that this 31 year-old theater program is ranked third in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report. The writing is wonderful. Each of these accomplished playwrights has an eye for character and an ear for dialogue. They all have a pretty quirky sense of humor, too.
“The Weight of Paper” by Rachel Axler, is a dark satiric view of ethics — or the absence thereof. Each of the cartoonish characters lies, cheats, steals or worse, just for the heck of it. At the end, everyone — even the anarchist — gets what they want; there are no consequences for amoral acts, only ultimate rewards. It’s a pretty dim view of our culture, though some of the skewering is rather sophomoric.
The other two plays I’ve seen so far consider, to some degree, the influence and value of art. In Barry Levey’s “Two Hands, Very Tired,” a student sculptor gives up her privileged life and creative endeavors in order to offer something more useful to society. She’s not a very good social worker, but she learns a thing or two — about altruism and self-delusion — from a homeless alcoholic.
It is Mat Smart’s brilliantly incisive “The Hopper Collection” that I can’t get out of my mind. In a setup like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” a middle-aged couple plays deadly games that keep their marriage alive, even if it’s only hanging by a thread. When a young couple comes into the picture, honesty is foisted on them with nearly tragic results. Like “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” the play imagines the back-story behind a famous painting, in this case, Edward Hopper’s ‘Summer Evening.’ But “The Hopper Collection” is unique unto itself, a marvelous, inventive piece of writing given a spectacular premiere, imaginatively designed, skillfully directed by Joe Stein, and wonderfully acted — by Lisa Velten, Christine Albright, Brian Slaten and Mark Smith. All of these new plays will make you stop and think… and for me, that’s what good theater is all about.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
>©2004 Patté Productions Inc.