Five playwrights kick off the festival with plays about love and loss, annoying friends and Kenya.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein
Ensemble Studio Theatre is an arts institution that has always been committed to supporting and nurturing new playwrights and works, such as Hand to God, which began as a Youngblood playwriting group piece and is now nominated for five Tony Awards. Another enduring element of EST is the Marathon of One-Act Plays, which is now in its 35th year of providing short, entertaining, profound productions written by EST playwrights and alumni as well as other members of the community. This year, fifteen plays are split into three different collections of performances, and Series A has just kicked off with five fascinating pieces.
For a performance of short plays, the Marathon is a polished, professional production with a strong and consistent visual aesthetic. The set, versatile enough to serve as the backdrop for a television talk show and a Kenyan police station, is a clever puzzle that evokes a shining cityscape at times and fragile, unclear boundaries at others. Fittingly, each of the five plays is its own puzzle as well.
Show opener "I Battled Lenny Ross" is a retrospective look back on famed 1950s quiz show champion Lenny Ross, shown here at just twelve years old, during a television interview that slowly starts to revolve less around him and more around the host's philosophical questions about success and loneliness. A miniature musical, music and lyrics by Matt Schatz are clever and engaging moments of storytelling, while Anna Ziegler's book is darkly alluring as it touches on the most prominent of insecurities, the desire to be loved. Ensemble cast Jake Kitchin, Aaron Serotsky, Olli Haaskivin and Julie Fitzpatrick give the show a seriousness and a measured quirkiness that allow the small story to become so much more.
"52nd to Bowery to Cobble Hill, in Brooklyn" by Chiara Atik is a simple but true-to-life character piece about an all-too-common situation in the life of twenty-something women in New York City: having to share a cab home with someone you don't like. The chemistry between actresses Megan Tusing and Molly Carden is electrifying, while their eventual almost reconciliation is just odd enough to work.
Amy Fox's "Silver Men" is a deconstructed reflection on loss in the form of a series of monologues from the mourned man's father, wife and son. The poetic text and beautiful rural nature imagery is enchanting, though the play becomes much more engaging during its brief moments of dialogue and direct character interaction. Performers Catherine Curtin, Tommy Heleringer and David Margulies bring a focus and a sense of peacefulness to this piece about how we grieve and how we remember.
"The Big Man" by Will Snider is an unsettling and humorous psychological drama about what it means to be part of a corrupt system. When a white American NGO worker visits a police station in Kenya to retrieve a truck that has been towed, he finds himself in much deeper than a simple bribe can solve, as we all begin to wonder how one can work for a harmful opposition government while still keeping a community safe and secure. Gianmarco Soresi, Brian D. Coats and Ray Anthony Thomas have a delightful chemistry onstage, keeping you invested through the very end.
Rounding out the evening is "Until She Claws Her Way Out," an entrancing monologue that turns into a stunning ballet duet about domestic violence and the need to be in control. Naomi Kakuk handles Mariah MacCarthy's text and Sidney Erik Wright's choreography expertly, with the assistance of dance partner Kit Treece, telling a subtle, disturbing and far too common story of a woman who believes that she is safe and in charge of her own life even as someone else starts to take over.
These five plays are each complete, compelling works on their own, but together they tell a larger story of contemporary American theater and the issues and experiences relevant to audiences today. Each playwright has used the genre of one-act plays to their own advantage, creating a compact but fully fleshed out production that does the 35 years of Marathon history proud. An enjoyable evening for when one play is never enough.
Series A of the 35th Marathon of One-Act Plays plays through June 6, but that's just the beginning. There are two more sets of performances: Series B (May 28 to June 21) and Series C (June 13 to June 27), all at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.