I love to see the Wagner New Play Festival at UCSD every year, to take the temperature, as it were, of young folks, and see what’s on their minds. Not too surprisingly, in these tumultuous times, it’s a fairly frightening picture.

From homegrown terrorism (“Damascus”) to immigrants and genocide (“How to Use a Knife”) to the dire prospects that await 20-somethings, in terms of jobs and housing (“Sin Eaters”) or relationships (“Others,” “Go.Please.Go.”), the present, past and future look pretty bleak.

But the performances throughout were extraordinary, and the design work was impressive as well.

The Best of Show were “Damascus,” by Bennett Fisher, which I discussed in my last blog, and Will Snider’s “How to Use a Knife,” expertly directed by Jesca Prudencio, a recent UCSD MFA grad with outstanding directing credits.

Both in its setting and some of its issues, the play was strongly reminiscent of “My Mañana Comes,” by Elizabeth Irwin, which was produced last fall at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. It, too, was set in the kitchen of a New York restaurant. It also concerned hard-working immigrants who worried about their citizenship status. There was a pecking order, and the threat of La Migra (here, the “Mexicans” are actually Guatematecos, and there’s also an African dishwasher, whose name his fellow employees and superiors don’t know, nor are they aware that he speaks English). Both productions featured a good deal of expertly orchestrated ‘choreography,’ that captured the rapid-fire pace and the many tasks required to make an eatery hum.

But in Snider’s play, the stakes are higher, politically and emotionally; the issues run deeper; and the shocks, when they come, are even more intense. The terrific sound design (Grady Kestler) maintained a knife-edge anxiety level. The highly detailed scenic design (Matthew Herman) included a working sink and a whole lot of chopping and cooking and washing.

The bilingual dialogue was consistently edgy, and the performances were superb, particularly striking since most of the cast consisted of undergraduates, not all majoring in Theatre.

Michael Koorstad (a Literature-Writing major) captured the swagger, cruelty and self-aggrandizement of the owner, while Volen Iliev (first year MFA), padded belly and all, was a perfect tormented hot-head as the washed-up, alcohol, drug and guilt-addled chef. He was just getting to know the silent dishwasher, Steve (excellent Yonatan Gebeyehu, first-year MFA), who was helping him control the “click” of his hair-trigger rage, when all hell broke loose.

Carolos Angel-Bara, Gabriel Cruz and Scott Duncan were strong as the browbeaten employees, while Rosie Byrne made a potent, convincing appearance as an INS inspector.

“Knife,” like “Damascus,” deserves a longer life (if it can compete with “My Mañana,” currently being produced in L.A.). In an odd confluence of timing, it also was up against another play that concerns the Rwandan genocide. “Our Lady of Kibeho,” now at Moxie Theatre, is set ten years before the tragedy. Snider’s work shows us a slice of the aftermath, twenty years later. There’s no statute of limitations on mass slaughter. The play, which manages plenty of comic moments, is deadly serious. And chilling.

“How to Handle a Knife” is well on its way. It has already been selected for a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere at four theaters nationwide. But we saw it first.


The double bill of one acts included Anna Moench’s “Sin Eaters,” which painted a terrifying portrait of a top-secret (Non-Disclosure Agreement) job as an internet ‘content moderator,’ who expunges violent, sexual and disturbing material. Which means that Mary has to actually look at that stuff all day long, until her eyes cross, and she’s not sure what or who she’s watching. It starts to make her crazy. And violent. And uncertain of who she is and what she’s seeing. Not to mention that she and her boyfriend are living in the Staten Island apartment from hell, with screaming, cursing, smoking and all manner of alarming and distressing noises and interactions emanating from the other residents. It’s enough to make even a viewer a little nuts.

Mary Glen Fredrick and Hunter Spangler (both second-year MFA actors) do a wonderful job of conveying the soul-killing nature of their living and working environment.

Mary could barely get this job; Derek was unemployed, until he was forced to go back to his hateful, demeaning catering work, so they can jointly scrape together enough to move out. Spangler is especially adept, in several character incarnations. Although the ending falls flat, the piece offers a disconcerting view of the worst fears of turning 30 with no grounding and no place in the world.

In “Other People,” by Lilly Padilla (first-year MFA playwright), Zoe (Mary Glen Fredrick again, in a first-rate emotional turn) takes a different tack. She leaves her incomprehensibly accommodating and understanding boyfriend (Spangler) to experience the full range of love, which to her means sleeping with anything that moves. Men, women, S&M, orgies; she does it all, to give us another view of the vacant, meaningless life of another lost, confused, adrift twentysomething. The role of her intrusive but surprisingly forward-thinking Mama wasn’t as funny as it could have been. The choices depicted aren’t funny at all.

This is a particularly juicy crop of actors, writers and designers. I look forward to continuing to watch them evolve.


© 2016 Pat Launer, San Diego Theater Reviews