Review: Brief Encounters at the Magnetic Field

The Magnetic Field’s latest, a group of five short plays collectively titled Brief Encounters: New Magnetic Voices 2011, closed Saturday. The performance showcased five different local playwrights, directors and casts, most of whom were new to the Magnetic Field.

The subject matter of these five plays, as well as the success of their execution, was widely varied. Still, this was an earnest effort to give new work and local talents exposure. Coupled with the witty and smooth production values to which the Field can now definitively lay claim, the plays created an excellent evening of theater.

Brief Encounters began with Canis Rex Deinde by Jim Julien. Smart, funny physical work on the part of three scruffy dogs (Casey Morris, A.D. Reed, Alison Young) underscored a rambling monologue from their owner (Jason Williams), who has been inexplicably condemned to speak only at the speed of his typing the script of the play. One could see the able hand of director Monica Gross, a veteran of the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab, as well as Asheville institutions such as the BeBe Theatre Butoh Festival, in that physical work. However, the dogs were relegated below sightlines of the Field’s low stage, and Williams behind a backlit curtain, for a string of strange and unjustified actions in silhouette, making Brief Encounters’ first 20 minutes rather frustrating.

Next, though, Devin Walsh’s script and David Dietrich’s performance were both spittake-level hilarious in Fail Danforth, a quick, light, Ionesco-inspired skit about a doctor and his relationship with his schedule and harried secretary (Rachel Thomas-Levy). This is perhaps the best-paced and most polished encounter of the evening — not surprisingly, as it was directed by experienced Magnetic stage manager Katie Ann Towner.

Glenn Reed and Sara Fields were poignantly paired in Ira Sargent’s Apparent Proximity. This play, developed at The Field’s own Magnetic Mignight, explored a couple’s trajectory over three New Year’s Eve celebrations. Both performances were beautifully crafted, and director Josh Batenhorst has an eagle eye for creating resonant depth between Sargent’s words.

Romance America was billed as a “rom-com featuring America and the white man.” Ryan Madden’s script has some superb moments. I particularly enjoyed a dumb show (a voiceover puts the stress on “dumb”) about American foreign policy between the twee Rachel Thomas-Levy and the incredibly talented physical comedian Travis Kelley. It was difficult to discern the intended effect of this play due to a bout of mixed metaphors (I overheard an audience member whisper, “Wait, so is she supposed to be America or the world?”), but it was well-acted by Thomas-Levy and Kelley, and skillfully directed by Adam Blake Wright.

The final play of the evening, David Hopes’ The Future of the Theater, was a clever meta-theatrical assault on short play festivals directed by show co-coordinator and Magnetic artistic associate (and Xpress theatre reviewer) John Crutchfield. Scott and Mandy Bean played a couple who, having just watched the first four plays of the night, and being barred from exiting by a towering Darren Marshall in drag, are forced to sit and evaluate the experience. Sure, it was funny. But the idea of spoofing the experience as it happens seemed to let some air out of possible discussion, and thus was contrary to the genuinely respectable call within Hopes’ play that an audience member could, in fact, make a valuable contribution to theater by voicing their opinion.

Ryan Madden’s lighting was smart and effective. A bright white beam that elevated a celestial aside from Reed in Apparent Proximity later elevated a spirited, tormented and elegant monologue from Thomas-Levy in Romance America without being repetitive. Madden’s washes of electric blue paired with goofy music from Ultra Lounge Sampler, the superstar of Brian Caflin’s able sound design, eased transitions between the five plays, and seemed, too, to acknowledge and giggle at the desultory thematic structure.

Brief Encounters was a bit like riding shotgun with a friend who has just learned to drive a manual transmission — jerky, slightly uncomfortable, but very fun. I imagine next year’s Magnetic Voices will be smoother cruising, and hope the careful selection reflects not only the strongest submissions, but a group that allows each play to build on the next, revealing each work in a new light.

Previews for The Magnetic Theater’s next show, the hilarious annual Bernstein Family Christmas Spectacular, begin on Dec. 1. Get thee yon and enjoy what has come to be a reliable fount of good local comedy and sturdy, thoughtful drama.

Brief Encounters: New Magnetic Voices 2011 | Playwrights: Jim Julien, Devin Walsh, Ira Sargent, Ryan Madden, David Brendan Hopes | Directors: Monika Gross, Katie Anne Towner, Josh Batenhorst, Adam Blake Wright, John Crutchfield | with Casey Morris, A.D. Reed, Jason Williams, Alison Young, David Dietritch, Rachel Thomas-Levy, Sara Fields, Glenn Reed, Travis Kelley, Scott Bean, and Mandy Bean | Show coordinators: John Crutchfield, Katie Anne Towner | Technical director: Ryan Madden | Sound: Brian Clafin


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