On Saturday, February 23, 2013, the Valley Repertory Company of Enfield put on a show entitled “LabWorks.” It was the finale of a three day contest, in which 12 fifteen-minute plays were judged by the audience, with an overall winner chosen on the last day. There were six dramas and six comedies presented over the three days.
Jeffrey Flood, a co-producer and director on the project, writes in the “Labworks” program that the Company put out a call for new plays from playwrights all over the world and, “Our call for submissions resulted in an astonishing 430+ entries, which came from 40 different states and nine countries!” Out of all these entries, Valley Rep chose twelve for the viewing public.
I only attended the last day of the contest, and had the pleasure of seeing eight total plays. Act One consisted of four dramas, and Act Two of four comedies, after which the audience was able to vote for the winning plays. It was an interesting night for me, as I have never attended anything like this. Usually, one goes to see a single play, and often a play that has been done before. Now, I was seeing eight different plays that had never before been seen by anyone. All night, the acting would prove to be exemplary, but I really did enjoy the writing of the First Act dramatic plays over the writing of the Second Act comedies.
The first dramatic play was entitled “6 Words,” written by Betsy Maguire, and was a commentary on race and stereotyping in America. It was based on NPR reporter Michelle Norris’ challenge to Americans to have them describe race in America in six words or less. As a fan of NPR, it was interesting to see a journalistic idea turned into a dramatic performance. Throughout the play, real responses to Norris’ challenge are read to the audience while the story itself was performed. The plot of the play presented racial tensions right here in Hartford, CT, as a black teenager gets in trouble on a white person’s property. Actor Tom Raines did an excellent job in this play, starring along with Anthony Urillo and young Miranda Flood. This performance did well to point out the troubles with prejudice and stereotyping that continue to persist today. I also thought it showed how often stereotyping does not exist amongst children, but seems to be a learned behavior. Tom Raines’ character makes the poignant statement, “It’s when people don’t talk that it’s a problem.” It was an interesting way to start the night.
The second dramatic play was entitled “After the Hersholt,” and written by Hal Corley. Set in rural Virginia, it presented a small glimpse into the relationship between Nora Lee and her son, Buddy. Actress Summer Echelson and actor Andy Neild played the respective roles. I did not quite understand this play at first, as Nora Lee and Buddy are watching the 1961 Oscars on TV and having a conversation. I had a hard time understanding the script because I found that Echelson and Neild were talking fast and with a Southern accent, and I was not understanding all of the dialogue. I spoke with Echelson after the performance, and she explained it was a story of the mother coming to realize that her son Buddy was gay. After discussing it, it made more sense to me. This was the third time I’ve seen Echelson perform, and I always enjoy her work. She does a convincing job of becoming the character she is presenting. This wasn’t my favorite play, but I thought that Echelson and Neild put on worthy performances.
The third dramatic play was just as engaging as “6 words,” although for different reasons. Entitled “A Long Trip,” and written by Dan McGeehan, this play presented an older woman and gentleman reminiscing about a long past romance. What I liked most about this performance was that the audience saw the older couple talking about their past romance, and we also saw a younger couple acting out what the older couple was talking about. It was like having the past and present on stage at the same time, and was a truly novel idea. I’m not sure I ever saw a flashback-type sequence done on the live stage before. Tom Raines again shined in his performance, along with Rosemarie Beskind, Troy Walcott, and Grace Day. Raines and Beskind played the older couple, with Walcott and Day performing as their younger versions. The play presented the first night they met, and the first kiss that they shared. It was a really touching performance, showing how strong love can be, even over the many years of our lives. We may age, but true love never grows old.
The final dramatic play of the First Act was “The Islands,” written by Norman Simon. Set in France, it starred Carla Maya and Karen Balaska as two beachgoers talking in a café. I found these two actresses shared an interesting chemistry, and the ending of the play makes the audience think about just how deceitful appearances can be. Twist endings such as the one found in this play are always fun, and I thought that this was one of the best written plays of the night. It was original and innovative, and a good ending to the First Act.
Act Two opened with the comedy “The Winner’s Choice of the Waves Beauty Cruise,” written by Reina Hardy. This play took place on a cruise ship, and its basis was the conversation between two judges of a cheesy beauty pageant held on the ship. This play was funny because of the great disparity between the two stars, Nathaniel Strick and Bill Mullen. Strick plays the flamboyant “Glenn”, and Mullen plays the macho “Rob.” I think that Strick played his character with an energy and comedic intelligence that really lifted this short play up. He got a lot of laughs from the audience, and played it over-the-top enough to make it successful.
The second comedy of the night was “Good Talk,” written by James McLindon. Valley Rep member Lisa Eaton had mentioned this comedy to me before the start of the night, because of the unique way that it is written. Instead of having actual dialogue, the whole conversation between father and son is told through the actors speaking their actions or intentions. For instance, the son may say, “Saying something wittily sarcastic,” and the father answers, “Barely audible grunt.” It was different, but I did not enjoy this play that much. I found it like listening only to the descriptions of words missing in a Mad Libs. The actors Andy Neild and Anthony Urillo did a good job of having their physical actions match up with the script, and there was nothing lacking in the acting. And I suppose that the play could be considered a witty commentary on familial relationships. It just was not my favorite play of the night.
The third comedy of the night was “The Oak Tree,” by Jay Koepke. This play starred Eric Michaelian, Angela Taylor, and Bill Mullen. In this play, a couple of amorous 5th graders are in the woods, and end up striking a conversation with a surly Oak Tree (played by Mullen). The conversation starts off badly as the hungry youngster Stu (played by Michaelian) demands apples from the Oak Tree. This sets off a diatribe from the tree, as he sets out to destroy the image of trees presented in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. This play got a lot of laughs from the audience, and the idea of the angry tree was a unique premise.
The fourth and final comedy of the night was “How to Bake a Farce.” This play starred Rose Stella, Christopher Bushey, Mark Vogel, Bruce Showalter, and Summer Echelson. The plot consisted of Lula Rae, a Christian chef with a famous cooking TV show. Her husband owes a lot of money to a casino, and he secretly plots to rent out her TV studio to a porn-producer in order to pay off his debts. Rose Stella performs admirably as Lula Rae, a born-again Paula Deen-esque type character. The audience thoroughly enjoyed this comedy, as the voting would eventually show.
After all of the plays were presented, audience members cast ballots, rating each show of each Act and submitting their votes to the producers. At the end of a successful night, the audience chose “A Long Trip” as best Dramatic play, and “How to Bake a Farce” as the best Comedy of the night. I found the dramas to be a bit more successful than the comedies, but I think that the audience on this night thoroughly enjoyed the performances as a whole.
Valley Repertory Company clearly put a lot of work into this night of plays, and their work is to be commended. “LabWorks” successfully brought 12 brand new plays to Enfield and the surrounding communities, and all associated with Valley Rep should be proud. In addition to Jeffrey Flood, I believe that co-producer Janine Flood, along with directors Dorrie Mitchell and Heidi Jean Weinrich, are deserving of recognition. I look forward to the next Valley Rep performance, an Improv Night scheduled for the end of May.
In the spirit of the Oscars that took place on Sunday night, I have decided to hand out several awards that I will call the “Markys.” Now, it should be said that this is the opinion of only one critic (me), and was not influenced by anyone else.
Best Dramatic Play: “A Long Trip”
Best Comedy: “The Oak Tree”
Best Dramatic Actor: Tom Raines
Best Dramatic Actress: Karen Balaska
Best Comedic Actor: Nathaniel Strick
Best Comedic Actress: Rose Stella
Best Upcoming Actor/Actress: Miranda Flood