Springtime in Seattle brings an abundant blossoming of new one-act plays by local playwrights. SOAPfest, now in its second year, sets an incredibly high standard both for writing and performance. Unlike most of the other festivals which feature 10-15 minute plays, SOAPfest shows run 30-40 minutes and, in the words of SOAPfest Coordinator Amy Love, “…must be complete, fully-realized plays”. All of the plays are submitted anonymously, so the reputation of the playwright has nothing to do with the appreciation of the work. Once members of the Sandbox Artists Collective select the best plays, only then does Literary Manager Emily Conbrere (the only one who knows the connection between writer and play) notify the winners of their selection. Experienced directors, designers and top-notch local actors begin the process of bringing the work to life. Presented at West of Lenin, this year’s plays are remarkably accomplished, entertaining and engaging, and an impressive testament to the standards of all involved.
In “The Tyrant” by Yussef El Guindi that level of excellence is established for the entire evening. A one-man show, we are the “audience” and interrogators for a deposed tyrant brought from his own country to an un-named American prison, where his explication of who he is and why he is here will ultimately become a very complex examination of who we are and where we come from. The play itself is brilliant, dark, challenging and thoroughly believable. G. Valmont Thomas is spectacular as the brutal and very sophisticated “barbarian”. Thomas brings such incredible range to the man’s experience and such insight to his complexity and contradiction that we are focused on every single word that he says, and on everything behind the words. This is a man who knows how to manipulate others, and who knows that the attempts to manipulate him can only succeed to the extent he allows them to. It brings us to the very difficult recognition that sometimes good and evil is a judgement dependent on our distance from the events. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this dense, challenging drama is the way in which it allows us to see entire societies, political forces and national histories, as embodiments of real human beings. Anita Montgomery directs with an invisible hand that allows everything to belong to the man on stage and not to the performance. Everything in this encounter is visceral, every gesture and emotion feels authentic, representative of experiences within each of us. His strengths, his weaknesses, cruelties, humors and passions are as complex and affecting as our own lives. At the end of this “short” play I felt like I’d spent a month with this man, and that the experience had entirely changed the way that I look at myself and my world. Pretty much the definition of a “complete, fully-realized play”.
“Cumulus” by Juliet Waller Pruzan could not have been more different in tone and gravity, yet it felt equally accomplished and so cleverly amusing. Set on an airliner in flight, it allows us to meet a diverse group of people as they meet one another. From the time our chipper flight-attendant (delightfully played by Leslie Law) directs everyone to their places it is obvious that this is a very ordinary circumstance. Yet, by the end of the play we realize that this journey takes place in a mysterious place somewhere between heaven and earth, and all of these people board the flight with substantial baggage that will never fit into the overhead compartments. Rachel Katz Carey directed the story with great imagination and a genuine fondness for all the individuals involved. When part of the story takes place between astronauts in space, her theatrical invention made it work. Everyone in the cast was effective, but I especially liked Christopher Morson and Kayla Walker as a young couple who are really not sure that they are on this flight for the same reasons.
Following intermission we are cast into a late-night conclave with a group of nerd computer geeks involved in some kind of internet hacking competition that results in the creation of a program much more important and profound than any of them could have imagined. Sam Hagen, Ben D. McFadden and Nik Donner are entirely convincing as these cyber-basement dwellers, and their combination of tech gobbledygook and strikingly personal responsibility made the somewhat outrageous concept feel entirely plausible. Playwright K. Brian Neel has something important to say in “il” about the personal costs and responsibilities of bringing new life, even digital new life, into the world. This is a fun play and consistently amusing, but it, like all the others, has something of significance to say. Director Annie Lareau gives it just enough weight to convince us that the hangover for these guys will have less to do with their excessive efforts than the consequences of their actions.
In Brendan Healy’s play, “Things to Say When It’s Too Late to Say Them, aka Proof You Were Here” we are engaged in a very private evening with a married couple who celebrate the wife’s birthday with a variety of interpersonal combats. Megan Ahiers is terrific as the wife, Annalisa, a woman who is strong and tender, independent and deeply in love, emotionally bruised and nobody’s fall guy. As her husband, Eric, Brian D. Simmons provides a perfect balance to Ahiers as an equally ordinary man with a wealth of his own individual strengths and strategies. Director Peter Dylan O’Connor does a great job of using theatrically preposterous actions in a way that makes them obvious but imaginative metaphors for the conflicts in any marriage. Again, the great achievement in this show is that it’s about something, about people that we end up really caring about, about the most intimate of emotions displayed in the most public ways, even in the privacy of their home, and in a theatrical context that only the stage can allow.
I can’t recommend this evening of varied and accomplished one-acts strongly enough. SOAPfest has made it obvious that they will only present top-notch, finished and significant work, and that it will be produced and performed by equally talented artists. I was expecting good work, but I was not expecting anything as expert and deeply affecting as these four fine shows. These plays may be short, but there is nothing about them that is small.
PICTURED ABOVE: G. Valmost Thomas in "The Tyrant" by Yussef El Guindi. Part of SOAPfest 2014 at West of Lenin.
PHOTO BY: John Ulman.