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BoxFest Detroit 2010

BoxFest Detroit 2010 is the latest installment in an ever-growing enterprise to support and encourage women directors in the metro Detroit theater community. This year's festival is marked by the promotion of longtime collaborator Molly McMahon to artistic director, accompanied by Kelly Rossi's return as executive director. Both are omnipresent at the Furniture Factory performance space, swapping shifts at the box office with other festival directors. The participants' eagerness to help events run smoothly is evident — among the volunteers manning the concessions counter is Frannie Shepherd-Bates, artistic director of Magenta Giraffe Theatre, which is playing host to the festival. The prevailing sense is one of overlap between the people actively involved in the plays and the people making the machine run, as well as joy in what they've brought to fruition.

Over the years, the BoxFest Detroit franchise has grown from a single evening of short plays to a three-week festival with a complicated schedule of six individual programming blocks. It has become literally too much theater to see in a single day — I know, because I tried. Short plays are fascinating and fun to dissect because they can create strange, special worlds without having to sustain them; the seventeen of this year's festival are no exception, but the sheer number limits my capacity to describe each as fully as it deserves.

Block 1 opens with A Mugging (by Ian Bonner and Marty Shea; director Jackie Strez), a quick, few-frills scene of a random crime turned on its head. Artificially confined by the cramped, dark approximation of an alley, performers Torri Ashford and Nick Pobutsky seemed under-rehearsed for a confrontation that waffles between unexpected earnestness and hesitant comedy. Well-executed costumes and props contribute to the histronics of The Reckless Romantic (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director Kathleen Leitz), in which happy-go-lucky bachelor Gary Castaneda couldn't care less about the accidental deaths of a string of fianceés, to the great distress of his butler (John Nowaczyk) and collateral-damage maid (Lesley Braden-Phillips). The overblown soap opera delivery is a great assist to the tongue-in-cheek comedy, especially when the plot twists start to unfold. Rounding out the block is The Other Side (by Kitty Dubin; director Debbie Lannen), the sweet, albeit predictable, story of a mother-daughter relationship across the spiritual divide. Barbara Bloom is humorously acerbic as the deceased mother, and Ashley Shamoon gamely plays the script's obvious progression of guilt and disbelief, but Joe Lannen's neutral character of the medium — although given little emotional heft of his own — single-handedly pulls off the concept, deftly navigating the difficult supernatural rules of who can or can't see and hear each other.

There is a David Ives–like playfulness in Block 2: the opener, Boys, Meet Girl (by Audra Lord; director Lyndsay Michalik), begins with a woman (Emily Tipton) explaining to a police officer (Andy Orscheln) that she is being stalked. The catty yet inert one-upsmanship of Orscheln and third cast member Lorenzo Toia is the highlight of this comedy. Next is the sweeter, straightforward Flowers (by Hillary Sea Bard; director Jess Preville), which features lesbian couple Lucy (Alysia Kolascz) and Aggie (Megan Johnson) on the verge of meeting — and simultaneously coming out to — Lucy's parents. The script dabbles in ancillary details and a few forced comedic tangents, but the ease and care of the core relationship is what ultimately sells the piece. Finally, there's the curious world of perfectly rational mistresses in You? (written and directed by Angie Ransdell). Even as the confident, logical Patrice (Richie Rollins) schools the sheepish Janet (Laura Kopytek) about the truth behind their shared paramour, their verbal sparring is juxtaposed with moments of physical closeness, a masterful touch.

Block 3 begins with the visually arresting There Will Come Soft Rains (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director Kennikki Jones), in which Jones uses the playwright's deliberate lack of information to create a frightening, unclear, vaguely apocalyptic world. Themes of propaganda and homophobia waft through the scene in an eerie funeral home, where strangers Arlo (Kevin Barron) and Zoe (Cara Trautman) begin to question what they've been told and even more so what they know. This fear and uncertainty is raised again in the closing play, another named Flowers (by John Wencel; director Kristen Wagner), this time the story of a wry, aging starlet (Linda Rabin Hammell) who receives more than a simple bouquet from a delivery boy (Greg Prusiewicz). Although Prusiewicz does fine work, it's all he can do to hang on while Hammell knocks her funny yet despairing role out of the park. A welcome break between these mournful offerings comes in the form of Wonder (by Kelly Rossi; director Katie Galazka), a risqué airport conversation between Megan Amadon and Angie Ransdell. Certain expository details are never overtly explained, so the scene plays out like hypothetical musing within a vacuum, but both the subject matter and the performers' treatment of it make for plenty of outlandish humor.

Deceptive Block 4 begins with a shot of reality that quickly slides into gleeful absurdity. First, Bar Reading (by Hillary Sea Bard; director Sarah Lucas) is a boy-meets-girl false start, where poor Maxim Hunt is shot down every which way by superior Alysia Kolascz. The real-seeming give and take between the actors has a pleasant arc that plays into a fine bait and switch–style ending. Conversely, the extremely mundane opening of God Needs Jumper Cables (by Andy Olesko; director Angie Kane Ferrante) is quickly stripped away to reveal a meta commentary on the mind of the playwright, resulting in one of the most hilarious pieces of the festival. Olesko inserts himself into the action (voiced by Kevin Barron), as figments of his imagination Joe Kvoriak and Pat Hanley quickly come to terms with their imaginary lives and a supremely unimpressive God (Ron Morelli) makes an appearance, apparently just because He can. Immediately following is the also-outstanding premise of Upon the Heath (by David P. Wahr; director Frannie Shepherd-Bates), in which Shakespeare's tragic heroines Lady Macbeth (Lisa Melinn), Juliet (Jaye Stellini), Desdemona (Kirsten Knisely), and Ophelia (Janeé Smith) assemble on the titular heath and compare perspectives on love and relationships. The script is so full of in-jokes it begins to ramble; even so, I enjoyed the piece's attention to character, especially Melinn's riotous, unrelenting severity.

With six blocks and five time slots on Saturdays, what's a Rogue to do? The answer: catch up with Block 5 on another night, after which I'll review Armchair Dating (by Margaret Edwartowski; director Andrea Scobie) and Birthday Beer (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director Keara Woods).

The disparate plays of Block 6 do have a grab-bag feel, but the varied tones and styles do not detract one from the other. In The Meek Shall Inherit (by Jacquelyn Priskorn; director K. Edmonds), senior home residents Connie Cowper, Sarah Wilder, and Debra "Rockey" Rockey meet for a card game and to gossip about the other residents, in particular late arriver Mary. Hints as to Mary's identity increase in frequency and transparency, but the expected payoff never quite arrives — an unfortunate distraction from the characters themselves, who are delightful in their own right. Next, the family drama Sun Trust (by Linda Lazar Curatolo; director LoriGoe Perez) elevates dysfunction to Tennessee Williams levels of vitriol and helplessness. The promising adult son (Patrick Hanley) needs a loan from his parents to buy a house, but the utterly irredeemable father (Wesley Whittaker) can't stop spewing hate onto his wife (Debra "Rockey" Rockey) and child long enough to pick up the pen, triggering two intertwined confrontations that sound a loud and resonant family death knell. The closing piece, get (t)his (by Nicole Young; director Sharon L. Brooks), concerns two black women (double-cast Alaina Fleming, Kennikki Jones, Sarah Wilder, and Kron Moore) out shopping for a man, a good man, a partner. When they stumble across a black man (Dez Walker) coupled with a white woman (Aysia Kolascz), their resulting fury and its consequences present a stylistic oddity, half tone poem and half Reservoir Dogs.

Accompanying these diverse plays is a neutral, dynamic set of rolling flats and boxes, arranged and dressed up according to the needs of each production. Transitions are accompanied by music and executed with incredible swiftness, a major credit to festival stage manager Maria Tejada and assistant stage manager Sara Vazquez. Lighting design by Neil Koivu is generic enough to suit each play, but still lends plenty of variability.

The dedication of the festival participants shows throughout the program, with artists like Kolascz, who appears in fully half of the blocks; Barron, with roles in three different plays; thrice-directed playwright Priskorn; and Ransdell, who writes and directs one play and performs in another. Rockey deserves attention for her sequential appearances in Block 6, with performances so varied I didn't recognize her from one to the next. However, this handful of mentions is not intended to discount the dozens and dozens of writers, directors, actors, designers, crew, and organizers that all had a hand in making BoxFest Detroit 2010 a success. Individually, the directors' works are sound and rewarding, but what makes them particularly celebratory is the veritable community that materializes for these few weeks and thrums with the excitement of shared, hard-earned accomplishment

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