Among the challenges to the craft of reviewing are those events which seem to have hit the exact mark they were aiming for, to have achieved parity between content and execution, to have allowed their audience to depart at once pleased and fulfilled, so that there is not much to say but: “Well done!” The second installment of the Magnetic Theatre’s New Magnetic Voices achieves all that. My companion for the evening — not quite a theater virgin, but not a maven either — never stopped laughing. I might have stopped laughing now and then, but I never stopped smiling. It’s all a frothy dessert for a summer evening, with more substance than you thought when you were spooning it in.
Especially impressive was the coherence of the choices of these brief, one might say random, plays. I don’t know what the principle of selection was, but the evening did not give the impression of a patchwork, but rather of a whole cloth — cohesive, modulated and accumulating.
The program builds from A Portrait of the Artist as a Middle Aged Woman by Jerry Lieblich. This is the quiet spot of the evening, for Lieblich brings the electrifying Enrique (Sean David Robinson) out of a romance novel into a woman’s oppressive life without quite knowing what to do with him, and the incidental laughs do not build to a memorable whole. Robinson, though, is mesmerizing, giving three dimensions to what was written as two.
Local playwright Chris O’Leary contributes Just for the Halibut, which, one might divine from the title, does indeed feature dead fish of increasing magnitude. The manic obliviousness of the characters pulls this one off. The fine actors deliver their lines with absolute conviction, with increasing volume and increasing insanity, and if the laughs are in a way pummeled out of you, laughs they are. My problem with “absurd” or “ridiculous” theater is that it is insistently self-referential and calls attention to little more than its own wit. Jason Williams’ direction and O’Leary’s situations remind one that these very limitations sometimes can be dead-on hilarious.
Plus, Asheville audiences are beginning to thank any playwright who allows Travis Kelley to portray an overblown, grinning, Clark Kent-resembling boob, as he does, to everyone’s delight, twice in this program.
Genevieve Packer’s Black, White & Read All Over is perfection. Two penguins are standing on this ice floe, see, and the one says to the other — no, I won’t give it away, except to say that Trinity Smith’s and Joseph Barcia’s ensemble work is flawless, and the direction is exactly what was needed to bring out the spareness and wit of the text. Simple perfection, and a telling commentary on human destiny, without our even noticing. Packer’s play was a replacement for one withdrawn late in the game by a temperamental playwright. The ensemble had one week to prepare for opening. This goes to show that sometimes theater disasters are theater blessings.
I have seen several of Jim Julien’s pieces now, and I think The Dining is the best of them. Darren Marshall is Caro Savanti, a first magnitude star chef trying to interest a typical American couple in his advanced and off-putting cuisine. It is an abundant premise worked to a high gloss, full of tantalizing details of comestibles you hope can actually be found somewhere. Laura Tratnik as Savanti’s lovely assistant maintains awesome matter-of-factness in the face of mayhem.
Recent UNCA graduate Mesha Maren’s Knot, Purl, is not laugh-out-loud funny, and that puts the audience in confusion for a moment. It is, however, a little masterpiece waiting for the playwright to have time to hammer it into a big one. Dad gets the idea of going to Disney World, but mom makes the Magic Kingdom sound like Mordor. Let’s find out why. Maren’s language is exquisite, and the situation is at once droll and devastating. Mike Coghlan’s sensitive direction gives this piece a tone of its own, separate from and yet complementary to the raucous festival around it. Carla Pridgen and Trinity Smith are touching as mother and daughter. Do write the name Mesha Maren down somewhere, for it’s one you’re going to hear again.
Mark Sullivan’s I Had That Dream Again ends the show, and ends it lavishly. The characters and the audience discover at the same time that they are in a sort of temporal loop, and they will hear themselves saying the same lines and see themselves walking through the door forever unless something drastic is not done. Well. something drastic is done. The end is like the satisfying click of the closing of the door of a very expensive car. Well done, Magnetic Theater.
Shows at this tiny theater tend to be sell-outs, so try to get your tickets early at Magnetic Field online.