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A CurtainUp Review
Summer Shorts 2015, Series B
By Jacob Horn
To look at it another way, though, Series B offers more variety than Series A. The three plays in Series A have a way of looking, and sometimes even feeling, like each other, but you're not likely to feel that way about Series B.
The evening starts with Lucy Thurber's Unstuck, in which Pete (Alfredo Narciso), stuck in a depressive state, is visited by three different women in his life on the occasion of his birthday. His sister Jackie (Lauren Blumenfeld) tap dances for him, espousing the benefits of going outside one's comfort zone and trying new things. Sara (Carmen Zilles), a friend who might be a narcissist, tries to talk about what's making Pete unhappy but ends up talking about herself instead.
When his girlfriend Deirdre (KK Moggie) gets home, the two of them sit down and have a conversation about Pete's melancholy. Going from the caricature personalities of Jackie and Sara to the more grounded Deirdre marks a noticeable change of pace, and it's in this transfer from lighter to more serious territory that the play loses its footing. The conversation between Deirdre and Pete ties up the expansive problem of depression too neatly, too quickly, and the characters who are supposed to feel the most realistic come to feel the most detached from reality as a result.
Robert O'Hara's Built continues to serve the playwright's reputation as a provocateur, depicting a "transaction" between young hustler Mason (Justin Bernegger) and his former teacher Mrs. Back (Merritt Janson). This is not the first sexually charged interaction between the two—last time, when Mason was only 15, it cost Mrs. Back her job (interestingly, one-acts about sexual predators seem to be in this season; a piece in Ensemble Studio Theatre's Marathon of One-Act Plays earlier this summer dealt with similar themes).
Though the premise of Built might seem a bit contrived, the back and forth between Mason and Mrs. Back can be as hard to watch as it is not to: while the interaction is unsettling and uncomfortable, it's also interesting to see the see-saw between Bernegger and Janson as the characters grasp for power and victimhood over the other. While never making the case that Mrs. Back is anything less than morally reprehensible, O'Hara gives the character more depth than might be expected in a short play. The resulting figure may never quite be sympathetic, but she comes alarmingly close.
Finally, in Love Letters to a Dictator, Colby Minifie plays a dramatized version of playwright Stella Fawn Ragsdale as she exchanges letters with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il in the months before his death. Stella first sees the two as kindred outsiders who just don't operate the way others expect them to, but she comes to realize that her idol may be a false one. She implores the dictator to be nicer to his people and wonders why he doesn't seem happier, slowly coming to realize the kind of person she wants to be through her correspondent's failures.
It's a strange frame to give to a story of self-discovery and improvement, and the absurdity of the premise (which might play better in a climate like the Fringe) makes it difficult to accept the play's conclusions even if they do seem emotionally sincere. Additionally, the set's two long clotheslines draped with photos and other tributes to the dictator feel too unhinged, making Stella seem more like a delusional stalker. Minifie proves a strong presence and occupies the stage comfortably in the solo show, but the out-there premise winds up leaving Love Letters... just a bit too disconnected from reality, undermining its attempt to earn more serious consideration.