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Hard-working women are the stars of 'BoxFest'

By Donald V. Calamia with John Quinn

One of my favorite summertime events each August is my visit to BoxFest, the annual theater festival that provides opportunities for women directors to showcase their work. The objective, of course, is to help these women find jobs which, in years past, was difficult for females hoping to shatter this male-dominated profession. Given the low-budget and relatively risk-free environment of BoxFest, directors of all experience levels are encouraged to push their boundaries and stretch their comfort zones, knowing the result of their work will help build confidence and expand their skills no matter how the audience responds to their project.

A fun wrinkle to the festival are the plays themselves: Each is an original script written by a local or national playwright, which adds to the pressure each director faces as she guides her production from start to finish. (New and untested scripts often have their own set of problems.)

While some women will rise to the challenge more successfully than others, their hard work and honest effort always result in an entertaining slate of short plays that should not be missed. And like the handful of women who blazed the trail before them, a lucky few may soon find themselves gainfully employed in their chosen professional!

This year, BoxFest Detroit 2011 features 10 plays and the work of 10 directors, split into five "boxes" that are performed on various days and times throughout the festival. So to ensure coverage of all 10 plays, I attended the Friday night opening (Boxes 1 and 4), and John Quinn caught the remaining three boxes on Saturday afternoon. CLICK HERE for the complete list of shows and performance times..

Box 1

The first box features a single one-act, Maybe by BoxFest Detroit Executive Director Kelly Rossi, in which four recently deceased friends find themselves in a holding tank in the afterlife. How they all got there in such short order is a mystery. Another is revealed when one woman asks the others, "Why are we even friends?" (You'll wonder the same thing.) As both begin to unravel, the question becomes: Will the truth set them free? Rossi's thoughtful script, staged by Crystal Reign Brock, offers four meaty roles for women, but it also presents a major challenge for directors: How do you bring a story to life that demands only three walls, four people and an empty room? Chairs are verboten, which means a director must be creative in where she places her actresses and how she moves them about the stage. (The ability to place actors on different levels is helpful in telling a story for a whole host of reasons.) Unfortunately, I suspect a lack of rehearsal time kept the pacing somewhat slow, the dialogue often non-conversational and the characters inconsistent or not fully fleshed out. And there were numerous times when the women seemed uncertain where they should be standing. (There was a bit of "scooching" into place going on.) Still, Brock laid the groundwork for an engaging story that should snap, crackle and pop with a few more hours of intense rehearsal.

Box 2

Falling from Grace is a grim drama about the end of an extra-marital affair. Lou (Jonathan Davidson) is a successful executive in the family business, and Grace (Heather Sejnowski) is his infatuated sister-in-law. The emotions are raw and violent; director K Edmonds pulls taut, gut-wrenching performances out of her cast.

Contrast that with the surreal comedy Kill Me Please, in which a girl with nothing to live for seeks out a notorious serial killer. Hillary Sea Bard picked a winner of a script and married it to an endearing cast. Amanda Ewing and Josh Cousineau form a marvelous partnership and really sell this screwball comedy. Ewing, in fact, turns in one of the best performances of the festival.

Box 3

Live at the Orient Express is an odd tale of a woman who is repeatedly at the right place at the wrong time. What starts out as a casual meal between friends at a Chinese restaurant becomes a deadly chapter in a continuing story. The play is written and directed by Barbara J. Troy. The direction is successful; the script is problematical. We come into the middle of a conversation and spend so much effort trying to assemble the back story we never really catch up. Kudos to Molly McMahon and Jackie Strez for their graceful handling of ramen noodles with chopsticks without making a mess or talking with their mouths full.

There is a tendency in directing a two-character scene to "over do it." In an effort to liven an essentially static scene, random blocking gets added without the underlying motivation to justify it. There is absolutely no random blocking in Kelly Komlen's offering, A Little Experimenting, a quirky turn on the traditional mother-daughter "talk." The script is well-written, the characters are well played. While the back and forth between Linda Ramsay and Mackenzie Conn has the realism of a mother and daughter at loggerheads, Conn is actually Ramsay's daughter. There's a challenge to peaceful family relations! So Mom, did Mackenzie take direction this well as a kid?

Box 4

Lifelong friends Jade (Heather Sejnowski) and Delilah (Kirsten Knisely) have shared many experiences together and fought many battles, but now they face the toughest challenge of all in Delilah by Len Cuthbert. Fighting a terminal illness, the two strongly disagree on Delilah's fateful decision to stop treatment that physically drains her and will likely not have the desired outcome. Director Katie Galazka tackles the intimate subject matter with equal drips of humor and warmth. In short order, the characters must ride a roller coaster of emotions, and Galazka and her actresses navigate the ups and downs quite believably.

The somber tone of the first one-act is quickly replaced by a bright red nose and plenty of laughs, as a rather unusual couple finds itself in front of a marriage counselor. In Clown Therapy, Nina Mansfield mines a circus of laughs as Maggie (Nancy Cooper) accuses her clown husband, Frank (Jim Duncan), of being a fraud. One can only wonder what life experience prompted Mansfield to write this little gem, but director Barbie Amann Weisserman topped her by casting Cooper as the wacky, unhappy wife. Reminiscent of Sandra Gould, the second Gladys Kravitz in TV's Bewitched, Cooper steals the show as she describes their initial meeting it was love at first sight on her part to her stunning realization (and meltdown) four-and-a-half years later. Sonja Marquis as the counselor has little to do in the story except react which she does well. And I'm not sure if Duncan underplays Frank or Cooper simply dominates the stage from start to finish. But all told, this was my favorite of the night.

Box 5

Three very pleasant one-acts fill this block.

AM or PM introduces us to a young woman and her ne'er-do-well ex-boyfriend. Hoping to win her back, he's gone out and found a job. He texts her to meet him in the park at two, but doesn't specify morning or night. He meant 2 a.m., and the job is not as wholesome as the young lady would like. This is a very broad but morbid comedy, and Megan Wright does Hillary Sea Bard's script proud. The engaging Paige Biggs and Casey Hibbert make us believe this improbable plot.

Death of a Snowman is a bittersweet little interlude between a motherless child and her come-to-life snowman. The theme is the fragility of life and the pain of loss. It is unfortunate it misses its potential here. Director Jackie Strez is dealing with an undependable (and, frankly, unnecessary) prop and poor costume construction. In addition, some awkward blocking, including a strange entrance and exit for Charlotte, stands out. It is also regrettable that Aaron Timlin's Snowman, who, it would appear, has some of the best lines in the piece, is hampered by costume and character voice, and at times is rendered almost unintelligible. The play is rescued by the wonderful work of Indigo Colbert as Charlotte. So convincing is her performance as the sad, wistful child I cannot begin to guess at Colbert's actual age. Brava!

This block is rounded out by another screwball comedy, Kung-Foolery, in which a young man's nutty preparations for his mother-in-law's visit may not be as crazy as they seem. It's a great script with great direction in the best tradition of broad comedy, and great performances by Michelle King, Ian Hector and Jean Pilon. Hector's approach to this funny, very physical material is consistently entertaining. So there's applause enough to go around, but especially for director Angie Kane Ferrante!

SHOW DETAILS: BoxFest Detroit 2011 continues at The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd St., Detroit, Friday-Saturday through Aug. 20. Tickets: $10 per day or $30 festival pass.

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