Premieres 42 presents seven new, one-act plays written, acted, and directed by Duquesne University students. While seven plays sounds like a daunting evening, the total running time is a tight one hour and 45 minutes. Minimal and well-orchestrated set changes keep the production from losing momentum, and the plays themselves are surprisingly snappy. While disparate in content, all seven broadly center on issues of identity and story-telling, the stories we tell about ourselves and others.
Of the seven, the least successful are J.B. Swinderska’s Jolene and Nathan Zema’s Testament. Both skew to the angst-ridden, forcing the point without trusting the audience will get it. The former deconstructs Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene,” in which a woman pleads with Jolene not to “take my man.” The play makes the song troubling because Jolene turns out to just be a normal woman while disregarding the song’s inherent problem: “taking” is not really a legitimate term. It removes one person from free-will when both parties are responsible for the evolution of any relationship. The four women in the play are numbered, not named. They are supposed to represent “women of the new millennia,” but instead, they come across as unmemorable and generic. Director Katelyn Donnelly struggles with smoothly navigating between the four, so they end up as four figures in isolation shouting out from the stage instead of interacting.
Zema’s Testament is either a 50-year old trying to sound college-aged or an 18-year old trying to sound wise. Given these are all student productions, it’s clearly the latter, but either way, it misses the mark. The biblical title foreshadows the didacticism the play delivers on. The play devolves into relationship histrionics so thick they spread with an oar. Alex (Dominic DeLuca) as the man in the relationship ends up in a mental institution, and Zema ensures the play’s broad swath of coupledom covers everything from drug addition to reading sanctimonious diary passages aloud to arguing over pizza toppings.
Allison Lento’s Dream with Me is a more successful version of teenage drama. Lento crafts a believable arc of a self-absorbed teen with Frannie (Olivia Scherrer) who prepares for, then returns from, a theater audition that makes her question her talent and choices. Frannie’s friend Jasmine (Antonia Gelorme) and her brother Fred (Griffin Sendek) are her two confidantes. The play memorably opens with Frannie staring in the mirror and asking Jasmine “Do my boobs look crooked?” Director Elysse Dalzell also develops a warm candor between Scherrer and Sendek as the two play a card game and Frannie shares her audition angst.
Max Begler’s Parklife brings another twist to artistic drama as it traces a writer, Tim (Hayden Lounsbury), struggling with writer’s block. The play flirts with magical realism as his editor (Allison Lento) transforms into a bum who inspires him, leaving us questioning what is real or imagined.
The first two plays, An Escalator Play and Norman, start the evening strong. Mark Yochum’s An Escalator Play takes place on…you guessed it, an escalator. Yochum never clarifies if the two riders, Man (Noah Al-Shemmari) and Woman (Erin Fulton) knew each other beforehand. However, it makes the play interesting, not problematic. Director Caitlin Ennis elicits a playful vibe and banter between the two, and the generic names suggest an everyman quality, as if this could happen to any of us on any given day at the mall. There is something alluring about chance encounters between strangers, and Yochum nicely develops that thread, the one that keeps us looking out over the escalator railing wondering about those around us.
In Norman, playwright Mikayla Gilmer divides the action between a largely silent on-stage actor, the titular Norman (Travis Barkefelt) and a voiceover narrator (Max Begler). While the play ends up being reminiscent of The Truman Show, it finds both originality and comedy in delving into office life. We learn Norman “types faster than the coworker to his right, and slower than the coworker to his left.” The laughable minutiae of competitive office life rings true and is well-developed as the narrator’s voice evolves from the declarative to the dictatorial.
Premieres 42 ends strong with a musical, Taken for Granted, which is the longest of the seven plays. Creative duo Zach Reed (book and lyrics) and Michael Hair (music) comprise a strong pair with genuinely witty songs. The narrative traces married couple and aspiring performers J.S and Erika Stein (Jarrett Klunk and Erin Carbone) along with their Cousin Mel (Michael Hair), the silent pianist. The trio make an unscheduled appearance at the Office of Artist Grants to perform and prove their worthiness for a grant. Klunk belts out an uproarious tune about choosing between his fiancée and a model in a Parisian café that perfectly illustrates his self-involved artistic nature. Reed and Hair pack in madcap relationship switching and a dual marriage without getting bogged down in the one-act framework. The play has a 1940’s vibe as far as costuming but incorporates some decidedly modern takes. When leering boss Rod (Michael Kirk) rests his hand on the shoulder his secretary, Ms. Elizabeth (Carissa Warren), she unhesitatingly flings it off.
Overall, Premieres 42 hits the mark, showcasing the next generation of theatrical talent. Frannie illustrates artistic anxiety about the choices we make and if they’ll pay off, but as the closing moments of Dream with Me show us, there’s also nothing like the euphoric high of being chosen in a field that often seems to choose one. Duquesne’s highly competent field of talent assures us theater will live on in relevance.
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th Century American Drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews