Artists of Tomorrow Festival
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 20, 2005
The Artists of Tomorrow Festival, now in its fifth year, really is a laboratory for new work: for two or three nights, playwrights, directors, and other theatre artists get a chance to put a new show on its feet—see it, hear it, listen to the audience—and then go back home and do whatever work they feel needs to be done to bring their artistic "baby" along to its next level. It's a grand idea, nicely executed from what I can see—a supportive, informal atmosphere to provide much needed nurturing to deserving works-in-progress.
I am planning on seeing two of these developmental productions this year. My first was If You Take One Elf Off the Shelf, a captivating new play by Francesca Sanders that is about 92% done, I'd say. It's about a young woman named Danika, whose life has come undone—to the point of obsession and immobility—by her father's second marriage to Elsa. Elsa—presented to us by Danika, probably unfairly, as a slutty, coarse nymphomaniac—is only a little bit older than Danika; her usurpation (as Danika sees it) of Daddy's affections feels unfair and coerced in Danika's eyes.
To cope with the turmoil, Danika has conjured Samson, a giant and very obedient elf who was her constant (presumably imaginary) companion when she was a little girl. She has also written all of her frustrations with her situation into a novel, which sits tantalizingly upon her desk. And she's also breathed to life somehow this very play we're watching; Pirandelloically, the actors in it, who play Elsa and her boss, Errol, are messing with their own destinies and Danika's, by not following instructions and not sticking to the script. They quarrel and quibble over whether the stuff they're doing is in the play, the novel, or "real life."
Sanders does a splendid job navigating through the complexity she's created: somehow, we're always clear as to which of the meta-levels of the play we're in at any given moment, and we trust the playwright to guide us to an interesting conclusion that will tie up the confusion and whimsy and show us what really caused Danika to self-destruct. Alas, this is the 8% of Elf that needs work (and Sanders probably knows this, requesting feedback about her ending right up-front, in the show's program). As currently written, Danika turns out to have killed her father, jealous over his preference for Elsa, and is now in a mental institution. This feels too drastic: the juggling that Sanders does with realities and illusions is too deft and skillful and focused for such a pat conclusion—I'd like to see something that feels more organic and less surprising emerge at the end, something that addresses more directly the very clear sense of inadequacy that Danika feels based on her (perceived) fatness, homeliness, and undesirability.
But given the excellent rest of Elf, I am confident that Sanders will find the right finish for her play. I can't wait to see it when she does. This is a terrific piece of theatrical writing.
This workshop staging is remarkably fine. Director Jocelyn Sawyer is clearly simpatico with Sanders's quirky vision, as are the four expert actors who perform the piece. Caroline Price, though physically not the ugly duckling that Danika says she is, conveys her character's angst admirably, without ever feeling grating or whiny or superficial: the pain of this young woman is well-disguised but very real. Mario X. Soto is great fun as Samson—warm and gentle and reassuring. As Errol and Elsa and the actors who play them, Geoffrey Molloy and Amelia Zirin-Brown are terrific, managing the shifting levels of presence beautifully and incorporating all sorts of comic business seamlessly into their performances. Sets and, especially, costumes (both uncredited) are excellent.