'BoxFest Detroit 2012': Hot Plays for the Dog Days of Summer

By John Quinn

It is written that modern Western theater was born when Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, 10th century philosopher, poet, playwright and Benedictine nun, broke the chapterhouse choir into two parts to sing the Quem quaeritis? ("Whom do you seek?") trope of the Easter liturgy. Thus, not only was she the first modern director, she established a tradition that has led, I might drolly note, to "The Sound of Music" and on through "Nunsense." I imagine, though, it would not have been long before some guy came along and said, "Step aside, Little Lady, this is man's work." As long as artistic director Molly McMahon and executive director Kelly A. Rossi present "BoxFest Detroit 2012," nobody better try that stunt again.

"BoxFest Detroit" is an annual theater festival that showcases the talents of women directors. We're blessed with a considerable number of A-list women in the local industry, and "BoxFest" has played a major role in that. This year, 10 directors present one-act plays in five sets of "boxes," two plays per box. Here's a brief run-down of what to expect, including some of the stronger impressions.

Block 1 starts off with "Apples and Oranges" by Audra Lord. It's a quirky little piece, using canned fruit as metaphor for the jealousies that arise when one's ex takes up with someone else. Stephanie Buck's blocking is very clean, adding no random movement. Unfortunately, two big pots and canning jars are used to establish the scene; they are noisy, busy and a little distracting from the dialogue.

"Apples and Oranges" is paired with "Saudades" by Savannah Ganster, a well-written, compelling drama. Sisters Cora (Angela Miller) and Margarite (Alysia Kolascz) are both dealing with loss, but the losses are different and the pain is not equally shared. Natividad Salgado gives us elegant, nuanced direction; the performances are very real, and the chemistry between the actors, palpable.

Block 2 opens with Ron Morelli's "Here Comes the Bride," directed by Kennikki Jones-Jones. This is a warning that you don't know your husband-to-be as well as his mother does. There is a definite comic build implicit in the script, which Kennikki and her cast play handily.

"This is the Play" is a subversive little work by Aaron Thomas Timlin, directed by Jackie Strez. The scene is the outer and inner offices of film agent Sam. One of his problematic clients, Brent, wants to write a play rather than a film. The play, in fact, is "This is the Play" - the one we're watching. While for the most part it's a clever exploration of reality and perception, the ending is unsatisfying. A play so surrealistic calls for a more conceptual approach. The playing areas are so well defined on opposite sides of the stage one questions the need for a mimed door between them.

Block 3 is a very satisfying exercise in the art of monologue. "The Blankie" by Suzanne Bailie is the first-person account of a baby blanket, who is very proud of her "organic merino wool" pedigree. The egoism is a front - she recognizes she's been through the spin cycle too often. Few of us could not sympathize with her observation, "Being the object of love is all I had going . . ." Director Carrie Morris and her actor, Bridget Michael, give us remarkable work. Michael works in a voluminous, rectangular costume, and yet the body language is so right. She plays silences that are as expressive as words. But it's the design that sets "The Blankie" apart; Morris chose what appears to be tangerine velour for the costume, in contrast with the pale grey panels of the set, and the effect is mesmerizing.

Rhea MacCallum's "When I Was" is a set of monologues that could, ala Shakespeare, be subtitled "The Five Ages of Women." Each section begins "When I was __, how I felt about my body changed." Each actor fills in the appropriate age: 7, 14, 28, 56 and 75. The performances are compelling, the emotional context thoughtfully executed. It is, in summary, an upbeat piece, and director Terie Spencer brings out the very best in her cast.

Block 4 includes two short plays with very different takes on family. "Bronte's Mom" by Jacquelyn Priskorn observes the ups and downs of dog ownership by a childless couple. The material is rather cut-and-dried, and it is a credit to Megan Wright and her cast that it is surprisingly entertaining.

"Sam's Secret," written and directed by Ileah Mare Nichols, tell of a young girl who finds, on the same day, that she is adopted and that her beloved older sister is getting married. There is an old adage, "There is strength in numbers" - and, since the director is also a member of the cast, it appears she has not brought enough objectivity to overcome the rough spots.

"It's Not Like It's a Cat" by Suzanne Bailie is a modern morality play concerning duplicity in the dog-eat-dog corporate world. This is, once again, a play with an implicit comic build that is not well reflected in Kristen Nader's pacing.

Rounding out the Block is a one-woman monologue, "Objects, Rooms," written, directed and performed by Madison Lynn McEvilly. This is a stream-of consciousness piece, intensely personal to the artist. Twice in the monologue she ponders whether anyone is listening. Audiences listen when they are drawn into the performance. It is the most fundamental exchange in the arts: the communion between artist and audience. Here, sadly, the dialogue falls short.

This is only a wrap-up - and a poor one at that - of what a participant at "BoxFest Detroit" will encounter. The experience is so much richer than the sum of its parts. If August means the annual arrival of surprise presents, tucked into little boxes, then forget "Christmas in July!" In the dog days of summer, the gifts just keep on giving.

REVIEW:

'BoxFest Detroit 2012'

At The Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St., Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Aug. 18. Box 1: 37 min.; Box 2: 39 min.; Box 3: 44 min.; Box 4: 18 min.; Box 5: 26 min. $10 day pass, $30 festival pass. http://www.BoxFestDetroit.com

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