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Three the hard way

UM one-act festival poses challenges


“All three of these shows offer something different,” says director Brad Poor. “Different from the typical stuff on TV and in the movies. All three have got something that stretches your perceptions a little.”

Poor is one of three UM theater students who selected a one-act play earlier this year—their advisor’s advised against selecting something “modern-day American” in nature—to produce for the fall Directors’ Festival of One-Act Plays. The directors get three or four course credits for their efforts. The audience gets a sampler of three very different plays by three very different playwrights.

The Collection

Poor is directing The Collection, Harold Pinter’s 1961 play about a series of confrontations between four characters, most of which stem from an alleged affair between two of them. Or so it would seem.

“Actors and directors talk a lot about truth,” says Poor, “and what is true in the moment.” The Collection, he continues, requires its actors to react convincingly to seven or eight big truths that emerge throughout the play, turning on a dramatic dime until “what [the audience] thought was going on at the beginning isn’t going on at all.”

“The thing that struck me when I was reading it,” he explains, “well, there’s kind of a common denominator when people talk about Pinter. They always use the term ‘comedy of menace.’ You’ve got this sinking feeling that something bad is going to happen, but you don’t know how or when. But after awhile you start enjoying the actors’ reactions to the same sense of impending disaster. Conversations morph into something almost abstract.”

Much of the suspense, he maintains, arises from the “Pinter pause,” which Poor says reflects the way people actually talk, with comfortable and uncomfortable pauses and brief interruptions while characters do things like put the tea kettle on.

“When Pinter pauses, he intends for it to be a good amount of time—like five to 10 seconds,” Poor says. “The pacing of the play is something different for this ADD society of ours, where everything is flying at you at a hundred miles an hour all the time.”

On the last night of rehearsals, Poor’s test audience was made up of students from the theater appreciation class he teaches Monday nights with fellow director Paige Williams. Seventy-five percent of his students, he estimates, had virtually no theatergoing experience before enrolling, and he says Pinter’s pregnant pauses caused a bit on confusion.

“Some of my students thought that the actors had forgotten their lines,” he laughs, “but kept getting up to do things anyway.”

Poor says he chose The Collection not for any particular timeliness, but for the evergreen theme of relationship dynamics.

“It’s more of a relationship play,” he says. “It’s about how we push each other’s buttons and pull each other’s strings. Pinter gives you all kinds of space to fiddle around with. The basic idea, I think, is to get the actors to take it and run with it.”

The Soldiers of No Country

Director Bryce Jensen, on the other hand, chose Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s The Soldiers of No Country, from the sometime playwright’s 1963 collection, Unfair Arguments with Existence, both for its political relevance and as a study in existentialism. In the play, a priest and a young soldier vie for the attention of a 35-year-old woman while waiting out doomsday in a cave with seven other “survivors.”

“It’s slightly absurdist,’ says Jensen, “but very existentialist. It was written at a time when people were very worried about the atomic bomb, and I think it has implications that are just as relevant today as when it was written. It represents the greed and deceit that permeate many areas of our society. Even with three people left, one of them still wants power.”

As a playwright, Ferlinghetti has been criticized for concentrating on language at the expense of time and place and saddling his characters with lengthy monologues crammed into scenes that don’t know where to end. Jensen affirms that Ferlinghetti is more poet than dramatist; he says he had to mine the script for opportunities to ground certain scenes in realistic action where Ferlinghetti provided few—a bigger challenge for him than directing Shakespeare.

“He’s not too invested in the dramatic action of his characters or in providing through-lines for actors,” Jensen says. “Shakespeare, you always kind of know where he’s going, but with Ferlinghetti you kind of have to tap into his mind.”

Such are the perils of making existentialism exist outside the mind and on the stage, which Jensen says is precisely the point.

“The overall message of existentialism is not knowing where we’ll end up or what we’re here for. It’s about making an investment in your own life. That’s the most exciting part of it for me—giving three people the rest of the world and seeing what happens.”

The Flying Doctor

“Those whose conduct gives room for talk are always the first to attack their neighbors.” Molière, Le Tartuffe.

Director Paige Williams also cops to doing some additional writing for her third of the one-act festival. Not into the play proper, but she’s adding jugglers to the opening of the show. She thinks it’s in keeping with the spirit of the time in which Molière wrote The Flying Doctor—circa 1648—and besides, couldn’t we all do with a little levity these days?

“I felt like it was short, quick and clean,” she says of choosing The Flying Doctor. “And fun. It’s tidy, and it exemplifies what Molière was doing at the time.”

For the comedy, Molière drew on the commedia dell’arte, a 16th century Italian genre that relied heavily on stock characters and masks and combined aspects of popular and “learned” theatre. The character Sganarelle, says Williams, is a stock character of Molière, who used him in various incarnations in six other plays. In The Flying Doctor, Sganarelle is a manservant masquerading as a doctor playing matchmaker; at first he seems too inept and crude to be of much use, but as the play proceeds he reveals himself to be clever and resourceful—someone who relishes exercising his ingenuity and resourcefulness for its own sake.

“Molière thought the people who knew the most and were the smartest were the servants,” Williams says. “He liked making fun of the upper class.”

While she didn’t choose the play for its political timeliness, Williams says it was a fun production to take on during a rancorous fall for national politics.

“It was good to do it at this time, with this election, which I’m not very happy about,” she says. “The question as an artist is ‘What am I going to do for the next four years?’ It’s important to have a little humor.”

The Directors’ Festival of One-Act Plays runs Nov. 9–13 and 16–20. Shows start at 7:30 PM in the PAR/TV Center’s Masquer Theatre on the UM campus, and tickets cost $7.

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