Produced by Pegasus Theatre Chicago
New Talent On Display
I must admit I walked into the Young Playwrights Festival with a little trepidation. The festival, which workshops and produces scripts from local high school students, seemed like the sort of project people would say they support and maybe donate to, but not actually want to see. However, the result was far better than I had expected, and I can honestly say these students are writing at a level equal to what I saw from most college theatre department undergraduates. Combined with working actors, most of whom are also recent graduates, directors, and designers, the festival was superior to the average student-driven show I saw during my own time in undergrad.
This year’s theme was “something wicked interferes.” Since the plays were submitted independently over a year and I don’t think they were revised to fit with each other much, I’ll review them separately.
A Matter of Life (And Maybe Death)
By Deja Jenkins
Directed by Ilesa Duncan
The first offering of the night depicts a girl named Iris (Sarah Patin) having an out-of-body experience while hospitalized in a coma. She spends it playing solitaire until a Reaper (Christian JJ Anderson) shows up to claim her soul, again. She rebuffed him the previous day. Anderson is the kind of Reaper who has a tough façade, but is lonely and feels sorry for those he’s assigned to. It’s not a good personality for his job, he admits. Iris plays it cool, and refuses to be intimidated by him. She still has a mom and a guy she likes among the living, and doesn’t feel kindly disposed towards this rather unimpressive Death.
Jenkins’s writing gives the main actors fun characters to work with, and Anderson and Patin both do their best work of the night. Duncan’s direction has them drawing closer and more casual, than back and hostile again as they ride the waves of Jenkins’s script. She did a convincing job of portraying two people bonding under unusual circumstances, though Jenkins brought up the possibility of Iris’s injury being deliberate only to immediately drop it. I wish it had received more exploration. I remember several girls in my undergrad also independently wrote plays about a troubled young woman encountering a handsome male psychopomp, and I wonder why that idea appeals to them.
Dare to be Different
By Daisianee Minenger
Directed by Juan Ramirez
The shortest play is Daisianee Minenger’s story of two friends on opposite sides of a gang war in Detroit. Rico (Jose Nateras)’s brother (Anderson) is in a gang that is planning retaliatory action against that of his best friend, Cornell (David Goodloe), who just wants to bring Rico a job application. The enemies know each other by sight, and the boss Sonny (Adam M. Overberg) shows up to make things worse. As far as 8 mile stories go, this one is actually idealistic. I’ve been told past student shows about organized crime were far bleaker. Minenger makes the ambitious decision to include a narrator (Angelica Herndon), heightening the play’s theatricality instead of playing it safer with naturalism.
By Taylor Vazquez
Directed by Ilesa Duncan
The post-intermission plays are more overtly comic, starting with the reality TV parody Dirty Spoons. Glen (Nateras) is a greasy spoon diner cook selected to compete on a show similar to Chopped. His competition is evil(er) versions of Paula Deen, Gordon Ramsey, and a valium-popping Rachel Ray (Victoria Montalbano, Adam Overberg, and Angelica Herndon). The contest is absurd and arbitrary, wearing on the nerves of the angry celebrity chefs, yet strangely boosting the nebbish Glen’s confidence as he overcomes bizarre obstacles.
Duncan’s direction kept this most silly of the night’s selections funny. Vazquez wisely ends the story before it drags on too long, but manages to include a complete arc and gives a light-hearted tone to what could just as easily have been a nightmare. Sarah Lewis, who designed all the scenes, made a portable set that adds extra humiliation to the eliminated chefs as they roll their counters offstage.
A Day at the Office
By Steve Maloy
Directed by Warner Crocker
In the final story, ad executive Andrew Stetson (Overberg) is hoping to land the shady chemical producer Infini Corporation as a client. He casually mentions he’d be willing to sell his soul, which the mysterious Lucas Fervor (Goodloe) takes him up on. What follows is a ridiculous series of negotiations as Lucas reveals more about the Underworld’s rules and debates the value of Andrew’s soul.
Goodloe, who has played an especially wide variety of characters, and Overberg get their chance to shine in this play, which also features the rest of the ensemble. It provides a philosophical coda to the evening, and mirrors the struggle with Death at the beginning. These last two plays were pleased with their own cleverness, but earned that privilege by staying amusing for about half an hour each. Maloy also lured me into underestimating him, and pulled off a strong ending.
Supporters of the Young Playwright Festival may rest assured their contributions are well-spent. Each of the four students has clearly benefitted from professional guidance in telling stories that remain distinct. They display interest in a variety of devices and exploring the unique possibilities of live theatre. The adults in the artistic team clearly enjoy working on this project, and felt comfortable sharing it with an audience. I know many companies care about nurturing growing talent. Pegasus sets a strong example for how to do that with very young writers.
Playing at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 West Chicago Ave. For tickets, call 773-878-8864. Tickets are $30, $18 for students, and $25 for seniors. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 pm. Runs through January 31. Running time is two hours with one intermission.