Vignettes for the Apocalypse 2009
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 12, 2009
When I reviewed last year's installment of EndTimes Productions' annual festival Vignettes for the Apocalypse, I complained that not all of the shows adhered to the stated theme—i.e, the coming end of civilization as we know it. Producer/artistic director Russell Dobular reminded me of this when he invited to see some of this year's offerings, and assured me that he had done a better job curating plays that were all in fact apocalyptic.
The moral of which is be careful what you wish for: the six plays I saw at this year's festival are just as Dobular promises, and the two strongest of them—centerpieces of their respective programs (there are seven groups altogether)—take audiences to authentically frightening places that they've probably never been to before. Apocalypse Now, indeed.
Let me start with Group 1, which includes two short plays, The End of All Things and Dorothy after Oz, along with the long one-act Kitchen Scenes with Nightmares. All three have intriguing concepts that take the festival theme quite seriously. In the first, written by Karen Martin, three angels fight over Gabriel's Trumpet, which when blown will signify the end of the world; Lauren Faylor, Jen Olen, and Hollis Witherspoon play these figures who we are told are the last sentient beings in the universe, under the direction of Tracy C. Francis. Martin considers here the notions of storytelling and play (in both senses of the word), and with some tightening this piece could be quite potent.
Dorothy after Oz shows us Dorothy moving into a new apartment as the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Her nosy neighbor tells her about a young man who is kidnapping (and possibly murdering) all the children in the area; he turns out to be Peter Pan, and Dorothy falls in love with him. Playwright Robert Ingraham has many interesting ideas in this piece, but they don't finally cohere as clearly as we'd like. The actors are Melissa Ciesla, Elena Offerman, and Steve Trzaska, and the director is Chris Shepard.
Mark Lindberg's Kitchen Scenes with Nightmares is the anchor piece of this trio, and it's got the best writing of the plays I saw in this year's festival. It's about three women who are now sharing an apartment in the aftermath of a catastrophic plague. Lindberg gives each of the characters monologues in which they explore their deepest anxieties, but the scenes in which the women try to cope together are the most harrowing—they convey, with deadly precision, just what it might be like to be one of the very last people alive on Earth...and to be wholly aware of that circumstance. Directed by Leal Vona, it's a stark and disturbing piece. Judy Merrick, as one of the women who has turned to religion for solace, delivers the strongest performance, with Mandy Moore and Nora Sheehan filling out the cast.
Group 2 also consists of two very short pieces followed by a full-length one-act "main event." The curtain-raisers in this case are both somewhat lighter in tone than the other Vignettes I saw. A Fresh Start, written by Peter Snoad and directed by Rebecca Hengstenberg, is a contemporary variant on the Fahrenheit 451 theme, imagining a futuristic society based entirely on superficialities, in which books have been banned. When a young man named Justin becomes inspired by a Maya Angelou poem, he begins to question all of his assumptions. Jake Paque gives a sympathetic and appealing performance as Justin, opposite Ali Gilbertson as his Stepford-esque girlfriend Julie.
Basic Contributor by Al Pergande is a slight play—more of a sketch, really—about a performance appraisal for a young man who works as a suicide bomber. The punch line, such as it is, is obvious fairly quickly, and unfortunately once we realize the premise, it's hard to understand how it makes sense, given the fact that a suicide bomber only gets one chance to successfully perform his or her job. Director Chris Cornwell has cast the play with actors who in no way fit the stereotype of suicide bomber (David McCulloch and Becky Sterling), which is an interesting choice.
The last piece of Group 2 is likely to be the most upsetting of all of this year's Vignettes. It's called The Godling, and it's an elegant horror story by Mark Borkowski, realized with unrelenting gore and tension by director Dobular. It concerns a carnival operator who has hit upon a nasty strategy to create his own sideshow attractions through the wonders of modern technology. But the creepiest character in the piece is a soft-spoken operative who the carnival owner has hired to extract revenge from a misbehaving clown. Marek Sapieyevski and Paul Krasner play the operative and the clown, respectively, and their scenes together are pretty terrifying. Zen Mansley, Candace Janee, and Leah Dashe complete the cast of this scary play, which takes us to a very dark place that will likely appeal to genre/horror fans but that others may not care for.
Dobular and company certainly deliver on their promise this year, at least in the plays I caught, pushing theatre to the edge fearlessly and perhaps even wantonly. Vignettes for the Apocalypse isn't for everyone, but it's unlike anything else that's playing on stage in New York at the moment.