NewGate Theatre’s Test Tube Theatre, an annual festival of new short plays (through June 25), is a mixed bag, though some work pretty well. The trouble with providing something for every taste is that there’s something for every taste, so everyone is likely to wrinkle a nose now and again.
This year’s batch starts out with a reasonably strong first act. The opener is Hold the Bus, by Isaac Rathbone and directed by Matt Kandarian, and while it begins like the usual acting class exercise of two guys at a bus stop, it unfolds, well, dramatically. Frank (Tom DiMaggio) races for a bus, misses it, and starts yelling at book-reading Randy (Steve Lynch) for not stopping it for him. Frank was slowed down by work boots and is carrying a construction helmet, so we know he’s not the type to settle for a “pardon me.” His calming down and wanting to apologize provides the emotional arc, while Randy remains unaffected. The piece is a gem of understated storytelling development and packs a quiet little punch by the end.
The Long Arm, by Estep Nagy and directed by Shannon McCloud, is a refreshing variation on the shopworn routine about everyone in Los Angeles wanting to be an actor or screenwriter. Two cops (Brien Lang and Robert Casey Jr.) pull over a couple (Joe Mecca and Megan McKamy) and head shots and résumés are requested along with driver’s licenses. “Getting the guys
at the precinct to do even one day of Kabuki was like pulling teeth” is a lament. Funny bit.
Thanks to Marc Berry as a frog who can act conflicted as well as ribbet, Frog Dreams and Dragon Tales, written and directed by Brien Lang, is a fun spin on the fairy tale. In the swamp, the princess (Danielle Villafana) is sick and tired of all the yucky frog-smooching she’s had to endure, and this frog doesn’t want to offend by offering the service. As slight but not as honest about human responses is A Thorn in Her Side, by Sara Snyder and directed by Anthony Victoria. A woman (Carol Caulfield) refuses to go to her own 25th wedding anniversary party and we’re supposed to believe that her husband (Jim Lewis) doesn’t object. Talk about fairy tales.
Ralph Tropf’s The Shoe, directed by Victoria, works surprisingly well for the clichéd set-up of a detective (Mecca) hired by a wealthy man (Jim Brown) to find a woman (Marlowe Tessmer) who left a party at midnight after dropping a shoe. The real surprise in this amusing exploration of the parameters of romantic love is that it’s so appreciative of the ideal without succumbing to either sappiness or cynicism.
Act II starts out ambitiously with some theatrical heavy lifting, but after the impressive opening piece becomes merely heavy-handed. I Saw a Bird, by Vicki Righettini and directed by Amy Lynn Budd, epitomizes the dense, emotionally resonant experimental work coming out of places like the Brown graduate playwriting program. A blind woman (Rebecca Burns) fantasizes seeing colorful birds against a colorful sky, while her scoffing companion scratches on the ground with a stick, to mark time like a prisoner in a cell. What emerges is some post-catastrophic setting, and the two represent polar opposite modes of coping and, eventually, the possibility and necessity of empathy.