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Phoenix Theatre collaborations yield world premiere and mini play festival

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What happens when two highly mismatched teens who are strangers to one another are thrust together to work on an English Lit assignment with an imminent deadline? That’s the premise for playwright Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You,” receiving its National New Play Network (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere at the Phoenix Theatre on the Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre stage. Examiner.com saw the show Sunday at the Indianapolis theater located in the downtown Arts District. It runs through April 23.

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On the following Monday, this writer saw the Basile Indianapolis One-Minute Play Festival, also at the Phoenix. A collaboration of the Phoenix and the One-Minute Play Festival (#1MPF), the festival featured 50 one-minute plays by 25 playwrights with five directors and nearly 40 actors presented on the Livia and Steve Russell Stage.

“I and You”

Prior to its Indianapolis premier, “I and You” began its Rolling World Premiere at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, Calif. (Oct. 10 – Nov. 2) and later was presented at Olney Theatre Company, Olney, Md (Feb. 26 – March 23).

Gunderson’s coming of age drama which explores teen angst, love and life in general is set in the bedroom of teenager Caroline. She is a high school student, who, due to an illness, is confined to her home and cannot attend class but does participate online. One day, Anthony, a student at her school who she has never met, shows up to inform her that they have been assigned to work on an assignment focusing on the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from “Leaves of Grass.” The two teens mix like oil and water. She is sullen and sarcastic. He is kind and outgoing. Though she seems somewhat juvenile as she clings to her stuffed toys, she nevertheless shows maturity in her love of art and photography, and demonstrates that she can be a free spirit when she dances to the music of Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s a basketball player who plays the saxophone, loves John Coltrane, is outgoing and is a lady’s man.

Though it meandered a bit, the story was interesting if a bit predictable until if offered up a surprise ending. Another positive was that the dialogue between the adolescent characters rang true, indicating Gunderson’s ear for the language of the young. It would be helpful to know who Whitman is and even read “Song of Myself,” prior to seeing “I and You” since the students’ interpretation is key to the plot, but it certainly isn’t a prerequisite. Also interesting to note were all the references in Gunderson’s script to social media and the characters’ use of a laptop and smartphones to post and shoot photos as well as play music—all an indication that Gunderson is up with the times.

Directed by Indiana University professor and well known area actor Martha Jacobs, “I and You,” stars Eli Curry as Anthony and Katherine Shelton as Caroline. Though clearly talented, both actors lacked the level of experience necessary to carry the ninety-minute drama or make its constantly shifting emotional content believable. Also detrimental to their performances were those moments during the piece when Curry and Shelton sacrificed intensity for sheer volume, in the form of raised voices, during their delivery of dialogue that occurred during their characters’ frequent disagreements. Though not oppressive, it was, at times, simply annoying, and therefore a distraction.

Jim Ream’s set, on the other hand, depicting Caroline’s colorful, girlie, bedroom filled with mementoes, artwork and photo collages, and accented with decorative pillows on the bed she spends much of her time on, made for a convincing locale for the story’s odd couple to convene.

“Basile Indianapolis One-Minute Play Festival”

The One-Minute Play Festival (#1MPF), a barometer project, is America’s largest and longest running short form theater company in the country. It was founded by producing artistic director Dominic D’Andrea, who, along with Bryan Fonseca, the Phoenix’s producing director, organized the local festival. Meant to capture the zeitgeist of the various communities and theaters with which it partners, the #1MPF/Phoenix collaboration resulted in an inaugural event that fully illustrated the vibrancy and vitality of Indy’s theatrical community.

The one-minute plays were divided into six “clumps” of eight, with each performed by its own company of actors. Directors were Ryan O’Shea, Lori Raffel, Rob Johansen, Katelyn Coyne, Bryan Fonseca, and Scot Greenwell. Some of the works included were by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan, Lou Harry, Jim Poyser, Claire Wilcher and Andrew Black. Actors who performed included Pete Lindblom, Arianne Villareal, Beverly Roche, Adam Crowe, Jolene Mentick Moffatt, Ryan Mullins, and Don Burrus.

The plays, most of which were blackout comedies and performed by the actors who utilized chairs and minimal props on a bare stage, were, for the most part, thought-provoking and entertaining. There were a few that fell short, however, leaving the viewer to ask “huh?,” but the majority demonstrated not only the talents of the playwrights to shape a story of one-minute’s length, but also the artistic skills of the actors and directors who effectively guided them in telling the stories.

During introductory remarks, D’Andrea mentioned that in whatever cities the One-Minute Play Festival is held, the event reveals the trends or issues that are important in the various local markets. In the case of the Indy festival, subject matter which reflected local topics of interest and concern included everything from the Beatles to speed dating to same sex marriage and stand your ground laws.

Each director contributed to moments during the evening that brought the biggest audience response. Among them was Ryan O’Shea who directed “The Critic,” by Carrie Fedor, which portrays a girl who resists being verbally abused shamed and criticized; “Girl”, by Andrew Black, which focuses on a woman who finds love and acceptance at a gay AA meeting; and “Dog,” by Rob Johansen, which tells the story of an adorable pooch who is overlooked by visitors who adopt other dogs at a shelter.

Lori Raffel directed “Can’t I Get a Hug,” by Jonathan Graham, which is about a gay, lesbian and straight couple breaking up and “Othello in 17 Seconds,” by Matthew Roland, in which the play’s central characters post comments on social media sites.

Rob Johansen directed “Lunch Date,” by Eric Pfeffinger, which concerns a man struggling to get through unplowed snow to reach his destination; “73 Corolla,” by Stephen H. Webb, which is about a man whose fiancé breaks up with him after he disgusts with a story he tells; “Crows,” by Dan Sherer, which involves talking crows hanging out in a tree; and “Sixty-Nine,” by Joel Pierson, which reveals a couple who were presumably discussing a sexual position when they actually talking about an interstate highway.

Kate Coyne directed “HB 1048,” by Ken Weitzman, which deals with a law that would allow firearms for protection in the schools and “A Fight,” by Claire Wilcher, which is about a couple who argue about the boyfriend leaving the cap off the toothpaste tube.

Bryan Fonseca directed “Anxieties,” by Bennet Ayres, which portrays a right winger in therapy as well as a series of plays about same sex marriage that included “Musical Chairs,” by Andrew Black; “My House,” by Jennifer Blackmer; “The Bottle and the Battle,” by Joel Pierson; “HJR-3,” by Eric Pfeffinger; and “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” by Christopher Hansen.

Scot Greenwell directed “I Think He’s Completely Underrated as a Director,” by Tim Brickley, which is about a group of people waiting in line at a post office during which the conversation turns to Kevin Costner; “Too Soon?,” by Lauren E. Thorne, which deals with two speed dating couples; and “Homecoming,” by Claire Wilcher, which features a woman at a Colts game who is disappointed when instead of winning an SUV, her prize is her returning vet husband.

A finale play titled “First Day on the Internet” which was written and directed by #1MPF’s D’Andrea tells the story of a man who teaches a clueless young woman who had never been online to use the internet. Despite the man warning her not to click on certain links, she manages to access multiple obnoxious pop up advertisements which are played by the entire cast. It was a brilliant flourish to an evening of theater that not only showcased Indianapolis’ talented playwrights and directors but also its impressive acting pool which shows no sign of diminishing.

According to D’Andrea, the festival is in its eighth year. Hopefully, the Phoenix Theatre’s partnership with the #1MPF will continue so that it becomes an annual Indy affair. Based on the results of the 2014 Basile Indianapolis One-Minute Play Festival, it’s an event that has the potential to become yet another of the city’s cultural traditions and attractions and another opportunity for the local theater community to shine.

For tickets and information about the Phoenix Theatre’s “I And You” call (317) 635-7529 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.

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