by Gillian Smith
Special to the Sounder
Now in its 12th year, The Actors Theater of Orcas Island’s annual Playfest is a community theater institution. But if you think you know what to expect from Playfest, you’re in for a surprise.
Playfest 2017 weighs in on the lighter side, with a majority of comedic pieces making for an evening full of laughs. There’s a more minimalist look to the sets onstage this year, keeping the focus on the actors and the stories, and making for a fast-paced evening full of variety. Most of all, this year’s offerings take the audience to new extremes, from the dawn of time to a post-apocalyptic future. There’s even a very short opera – accompanied by ukulele.
The evening commences with a time-travel journey penned by Miguel Villareal. From the moment the lights go up, this action-packed piece snaps the audience to attention as we join a group of our very earliest ancestors from the prehistoric, cave-dwelling past. Hilarious and at times surreal, “What’s New” delights the audience with action, gags, and deep moments served up as satire. The troupe of actors – Pat Ayers, Brita Brahce, Linda Ellsworth, Evan Erskine and Bethany Marie – go all out in their commitment to physical comedy, while the manic activity of the piece is held together by featured actor Kevin Doyle, as a prehistoric philosopher of sorts. Full of surprises, this piece features comical costumes by Pat Ayers.
Next, we are transported to the present day and a familiar, island-specific scenario which has the audience nodding in recognition, in “Needs New Battery” by writer Cara Russell (also in command of lights and sound in the tech booth). In this deft and funny piece, Adia Dolan has the audience chuckling before she utters her first line. She’s joined by Keith Light in bringing the laughs, as a young couple in a common domestic situation that snowballs into absurdity. Ms. Dolan and Mr. Light are both believable and charming in portraying the familiarity and occasional irritation of coupledom, as well as being adept at physical humor. This pair of high school students are certainly to be congratulated for having achieved such a level of comfort and accomplishment onstage at such a young age. And in an impressive display of versatility, both this and the previous piece were directed by Aaimee Johnson. This year also marks Johnson’s second year as overall coordinator of Playfest.
The island-specific theme continues, while the style of humor changes to that of farce, in “Open House at Murder Mansion” by playwright Mac Smith. There are few genres guaranteed to delight audiences more than that of door-slamming farce, especially when murder intrigue is thrown in, and “Open House at Murder Mansion” delivers. Expertly directed by Andy Martin, an ensemble cast takes the stage in a variety of funny guises. Alyssa Flaherty stars as a put-upon realtor, playing host to potential buyers portrayed as a wide variety of island “types” (both the visiting and local varieties). Pat Ayers and Pegi Groundwater play a well-heeled, house-collecting couple, Maura O’Neill is a hard-nosed real-estate investor, Bella Schermerhorn and Thumper play a secretary and a wealthy eccentric, and Ms. Schermerhorn turns around to appear again with Mardy Lopez, as a young couple of the local and highly-overworked variety. Kevin Doyle is once again the man to hold the piece together, though this time as a hilariously menacing silent presence. Dialogue that only an Orcas Island audience can fully appreciate has the audience in stitches in this enjoyable piece.
Wrapping up the first act is a moving piece by writer Tom Fiscus. “Wedding Dances” is a two-person play with strong performances by its actors Indy Zoeller and Alyssa Flaherty. This pair work together beautifully, portraying recognizable moments of human awkwardness with sensitive realism. They take us on a journey where strangers find a connection through sharing stories and negotiating the attempt at a connection. Through their story, a lovely message about overcoming fears and expressing oneself is conveyed. This thoughtful piece had the audience on the edge of their seats, rooting for this believable pair, who deserved the rousing applause they earned to close the first act of the evening. Movingly and beautifully directed by director Brian Richard, with a large cast of background actors rounding out the performance.
After intermission, the show resumes with a complete and total change of scene. “Emerald City” by Corey Homewood catapults the audience into a post-apocalyptic future that could someday face us, should The Big One hit our region. Liz Doane and Justin Halfman portray a contrasting pair thrown together by chance in desperate circumstances where the past is a distant blur and the future is dangerously uncertain. Clinging together for survival, they’re challenged by the arrival of Mackenzie Halfman in an intense performance as a woman who has adapted by becoming a warrior. An action movie disguised as a ten-minute play, this involving journey of a piece is brought to life by strong, committed performances by its trio of actors, and directed with accomplishment by Doug Bechtel and Kristen Wilson.
The second-to-last piece of the evening, “TJ” by James Wolf, is a treat of beautiful writing, and so touching in its performances that any reservations that might be had about the difficult subject matter are overcome by how movingly its story is told. In an engagingly warm performance, John Mazzarella plays a writer reflecting on an event far in his past, while Adia Dolan and Evan Erksine enact his recollections, along with a supporting ensemble of Lea Richardson, Pat Ayers, Tom Fiscus and Alaena Comrie. As young woman facing a crisis alone, Ms. Dolan’s face is a wonder of quiet expressiveness in this piece, conveying a thoroughly believable range of emotions, while Mr. Erskine perfectly embodies the storyteller’s admirably sincere younger self, in a the story of a brief connection between strangers that turns out to be long-remembered. The excellent acting performances shine thanks to the wonderful writing, while the directing of Michele Griskey, with a minimalist set that highlights the story, offers a perfect realization of this piece.
Before the evening ends, the audience is in for a treat with the surprising and delightful final play entitled “2.5 Kids” by Kat Fennell. This mini-musical, conveyed entirely in song, brings us Thumper, in a highly entertaining performance, as the singing narrator of the story of a young couple negotiating the conflicts between family life and their own dreams. Danica Coffman, who possesses a beautiful singing voice, gracefully plays an expectant mom who dreams of living off the land, while Justin West, a strong singer as well, humorously enacts her dreadlocked partner, who would rather set sail across the seas; their story in song progresses through increasingly funny verses to a charming conclusion. Multi-talented Keith Light provides the percussion accompaniment. Capably directed by Jim Shaffer-Bauck, this final piece leaves the audience thoroughly delighted, and humming their way out into the night.
Hair and makeup are done Carol Whitbeck and Kim Secunda and stage crew is Paula Capitano, Alice Hachee, Jeannie Pollock, Susie Shipman and Lea Richardson.
Playfest continues for three more performances, Friday, June 2 through Sunday June 4, 7:30 p.m. at the Orcas Grange. Tickets ($10) are available at Darvill’s Bookstore, online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2960015 and at the door.