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It's About Time

3 Troupes Launch Short-Play Productions Aimed at Developing the Meaty and the Off-Beat Quickly

April 30, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shorts are in fashion this spring on the Orange County scene--not just for the beach, but for theaters putting on plays.

In an unusual confluence, three grass-roots companies opened new short-play productions over the weekend.

* "Six at Eight," the annual showcase for winners of the O.C.-based West Coast Ten-Minute Play Festival, is at the Vanguard Theatre in Fullerton.

* The Rude Guerrilla Theater Company has launched "Dirty Laundry and Dead Virgins" at its Empire Theater in Santa Ana. It's an evening of four strange one-act plays by Keith Neilson, a professor of English at Cal State Fullerton.

* "A Short Play Expose" is the bill of fare at Stages, also in Fullerton. Actually it's two alternating bills of fare, with six plays on one and five on the other--all by local writers who have had little exposure.

The respective producers said this short-play troika is a matter of sheer coincidence. All had different motives for staging theatrical quickies, and said they did it without paying attention to the other theaters.

"Six at Eight" is a matter of tradition. For eight years, organizer Jill Forbath has mounted her West Coast Ten-Minute Play Festival--which involves soliciting entries from all over the country, reading them (this year there were 483), picking four winners and, with the help of the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, putting them onstage for a four-week run. Besides the four top selections from the contest, this year's program offers three plays that originated at the Actors Theater of Louisville's Humana Festival, considered the spiritual home of the 10-minute play movement.

Forbath said death and renewal were frequent themes among this year's entries; she thinks the millennium pointed writers toward the big issues. And the first-prize winner, she said, is one of the biggest short plays imaginable.

"The Andalusian Dream" by Magdalena Gomez, a Bronx-raised, Springfield, Mass.-based teacher and playwright, crams plenty into its running time of about 15 minutes (Forbath gives some leeway beyond 10 minutes as long as the play scripts come in at no more than 10 pages).

The four-character play offers scenes of spousal rape, mother-daughter incest and a homoerotic pas de deux between two men. The action occurs in real time and in the memory and fantasies of the central character, a young woman named Luisa. The staging calls for flamenco music and various sound effects. The themes encompass the agony of a family, the wounds of ethnicity, the solace and disappointments of having artistic talent, and the toll of the Vietnam War--on a single family and on the national psyche.

In selecting "The Andalusian Dream," Forbath said, "I was trying to show that the 10-minute-play format doesn't have to be a skit. It can be something that takes you through an experience, through a life history almost. It doesn't have to be cute and funny, but something that leaves you wondering and makes you think. I don't know if people will be intrigued or just confused, but this is an attempt to say that you can stretch this format."

*

Dave Barton, artistic director of Rude Guerrilla, said he usually doesn't have much use for short plays.

"Most seem unfinished. If something has a really good idea to it, then why not expand it? To my mind, a good one-act is between 20 minutes and an hour."

But when Neilson sent him "Spindry!" a 15-minute one-act, Barton was smitten. Here, he realized, was a kindred spirit, a possible match for Rude Guerrilla's out-there sensibility. "Spindry!," about an unappreciated wife's tart toodle-oo to dull domesticity, "was so unusual and raunchy that it perked my interest right away," Barton said.

Next, Neilson sent "Hades' Bobbin," a 30-minute absurdist script about a cell of conspirators trying to pick a new leader. "It was really weird," Barton said. "I told him, 'I don't think I understand this play, but it's intriguing.' "

Add in "Answer Machine," in which a man's disintegration unfolds via his phone messages, and "The Death of the Virgin," in which a portrait painter puts his model through his own odd little Pageant of the Masters, and you have an evening of short plays.

For Neilson, 65, the show represents a return to the theater, the passion of his youth, after more than 30 years away. During the 1960s, while earning degrees at Princeton and the University of Chicago, Neilson acted and wrote plays. The Rockefeller Foundation funded a Cincinnati production of one of his works, "The End of the World or Fragments From a Work in Progress." But Neilson said the demands of family life and making his way in academia took him in other directions.

"My dramatic career fizzled on the rocks of domesticity and all that stuff."

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