Ensemble Studio Theatre: It’s Not a Sprint

Photo by Gerry Goodstein

I approach one-act plays the same way I do short stories: I know they’re good for my literary vocabulary, that they widen my understanding of the genre, and that every once in a while, one of them will grab me my the throat and convince me that I have foolishly persisted in undervaluing this art form all these years. Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 36th Marathon of One-Act Plays: Series B, running through June 26, contained a couple shining examples of this formal magnificence, nestled neatly into the anthology of the marathon. I also found myself wondering, and acknowledge that this question probably doesn’t have an answer: are you supposed to want a second act, after a one-act play? Or is it supposed to be perfectly complete in itself? Is a one-act the most intentionally ephemeral storytelling? Or a prelude to a more extended version of itself?

In Down Cleghorn, by Julia Specht, directed by Ralph Peña, we are introduced to an accent-heavy Massachusetts family whose tensions run close under the surface. This one-act seemed yanked out of a much larger story, and got stuck in trying to explain too much throughout its short duration. The drama felt overwrought, and I was red with secondhand embarrassment for the mother character, who not only was the type of piña colada vape-smoking, non-stop opining older woman who already makes you cringe, but when her daughters would gang up on her, she free-spiraled into a pathetic ridiculousness. The complicated family relationships depicted had neither time nor space for real depth or nuance.

The second play, Falling Away, by Christopher Shinn, directed by Mark Armstrong, felt complete in itself, in that the entirety of the two-hander was an impassioned lovers’ quarrel between two twenty-somethings. Structurally, Shinn dropped the “l-word” bomb within the first three minutes of the play, which effectively set the stakes for the rest of their conversation. Unfortunately, the tone quickly became too serious for its own good. The will-they won’t-they question would have been more enticing if the stakes were higher, or if the characters were playing their emotion as arch comedy, but instead the tone got stuck in a middle ground of earnestness.

Linus and Murray by Leah Nanako Winkler, directed by RJ Tolan, was the third offering of the marathon, and a tribute to the form. The play featured excellent hyper-physical acting by Curran Connor and Debargo Sanyal, who convincingly embodied a dog and a cat who had to share a backyard and decided to become friends. Their world was appreciably absurd; the cat (Linus) and dog (Murray) spoke English but moved like animals, and there was a great moment where the dog broke into a serious soliloquy about his long and lonely winter. The dialogue was quick and entertaining, with exchanges like, “Seriously, I freak out if someone doesn’t like me.” “What are you, a white girl?” and neologisms like “catraged.” The drama was perfectly timed to the one-act structure, and we got the full arc of human emotion: the animals proclaimed their love for each other, Linus died trying to save Murray’s life (the ultimate sacrifice for his selfish self), and in the final scene we got to meet the pets’ owners, (the actors were of course doubled), who had a touching conversation of human friendship, united by their animals.

The fourth one-act, Disney & Fujikawa by Lloyd Suh, directed by Linsay Firman, was another exemplary demonstration of the form; although Suh’s piece left me hungry for the next scene in the full-length version of this play. The play existed as a torrent of words, contemporary existential anxiety unleashed. Suh’s writing is smart, sharp, and political, resonating both with the world of 1942 depicted in the play and our 2017 reality. Jeff Biehl and Tiffany Villarin gave excellent performances, portraying many layers of these characters — one mythologized, one mostly unknown — in the span of one conversation. Disney is portrayed as a verbose, bitterly naive white man who “doesn’t see color,” and Fujikawa is a coil of furor, waiting to be unleashed. When she finally does explode, her monologue twists in circles of impossible logic, such as “How can I believe [I am American] when I know I’m not American in the eyes of America?” and “I know you’re not racist, except of course you are. But no more racist than the world is.” Suh’s writing gifted both characters with passionate monologues, in the fraught historical setting of World War II and Japanese internment camps. Disney & Fujikawa was an extremely evocative fragment of a much larger story, laced with humor and wit.

Finally, On the Outs by Christina Gorman, directed by David Auburn, concluded Series B of the marathon. This play was a mini-melodrama for 2017, offering a poignant look at the prison homecoming, as Jonas, a previously incarcerated black man returns to society and struggles with his culture shock. He doesn’t know how to work the Keurig coffee machine, and he despondently refuses anything to eat, saying, “Nothing tastes the same.” Both thoughtful and tender, On the Outs unveiled the difficulties of resuming life and relationships after years of incarceration, and offers an empathetic look at an unimaginably difficult situation that has unfortunately become commonplace in black American families. Both complete in itself, and clearly part of a larger story, On the Outs ends ominously with Jonas being locked in for the night so he can finally get some sleep.

Evidently, I’m no closer to unlocking the enigmatic one-act essence, but I am tickled by the possibilities of all of these plays, auguring larger worlds within. The EST One-Act Marathon continues until June 30, until the writers take their marks again next summer.

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