On its last evening at the Richmond Shepherd Theater, the New Works 4: International Short Play Festival presented its program without an intermission. A collection of six short works presented as bare-bones staging’s presented pieces both amorphous and direct.
The first piece of the evening, the speed-dating clip, “Date with Yourself” by Tom Hatton, had an engaging concept but no real definition. The protagonist’s last line, a mournfully-uttered “Fiona,” connected to little within the rest of the play and was overly abrupt. Why Mr. Hatton chose to stop his play here – and whether this was a stand-alone short play or a scene taken from a larger work – was ambiguous.
Play it Again Sam by Fran Handman and Sit Still by Jae Kramisen were hardly credible contenders in the “competition” presented by the festival – although Sit Still somehow managed to come in second when all votes were tallied. Handman’s play was lacking context, for those of us whose memory of Casablanca diverges from the photographic, but others in my party had better memories of the film – and said that didn’t allow them any further entry to the work than I experienced. Sit Still couldn’t quite decide if it was a procedural drama or a clip from Jodie Foster’s Nell, and telegraphed its end game far ahead of its inevitable conclusion.
I am curious to know whether Earbuds was written by the same Michael Bettencourt who wrote A Question of Color, which I reviewed for the University at Buffalo’s The Spectrum in 2002 when it was performed at the Alleyway Theater in Buffalo, New York. (Bettencourt’s name seemed familiar, and lo and behold what a quick search turned up…) A highly original commentary on the millennial relationship with technology, Bettencourt’s Earbuds could be seen as a cybernetic homage to The Fly. He taps into millennial anxiety about both love and technology in an artful scenario about a girl who has merged with her iPod. Thanks to artful use of language, Bettencourt may find that his short is easily updatable when the next big trend in personal technology comes along.
In the interest of disclosure, Donna Hoke – the writer of Gift Horse – and I share a hometown connection, and I met her prior to the show through links to Buffalo’s Road Less Traveled. Of the night’s entries, Hoke’s piece displayed the clearest mastery of craft, and was a well-structured 10-minute play that drew clear portraits of its characters and their lives. The layered emotional subtexts gave way to a clear, if bittersweet, message about human interactions.
The final piece of the evening touched on themes of war; its mood echoes that of The Unconquered or even Bengal, though its execution is far less skillful. The Director Mark Bloom chose to approach this piece as a loose series of impressions, and the slow-encroaching madness of Daniel Hicks’ Mackey never reaches either a fever pitch or an uncomfortable level of threat. The play, which developed its theme over a longer period of time than most of the night’s other offerings, was the ultimate winner of the festival’s competition.