Encore Michigan

BoxFest packs a lot of poignancy in 2016

Review August 25, 2016 Tanya Gazdik

HAMTRAMCK—It was a dark and stormy night. The torrential rain on Saturday might have taken down the tent outside this year’s venue, Planet Ant in Hamtramck, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the organizers of BoxFest, or the audience.

Artistic Director Molly McMahon and Executive Director Kelly Rossi continue to nurture the festival with passion and expertise. McMahon was on hand, along with Producer Amanda Grace Ewing, to explain the mission of BoxFest to each Box’s audience. But Rossi was there in spirit only, having given birth to a baby girl during opening night. Talk about stealing the show!

Over the two-weekend-long festival, BoxFest Detroit 2016 presents 13 short plays directed by women, many of which were also written by women. The festival has served and continues to function as a springboard for many women and their directing careers. Directors who have participated in past festivals have gone on to pursue graduate studies, become directors at professional theaters and form their own successful theater and production companies.

This year’s selection is strong across the board. The nature of these short plays is that they feel experimental, like short works that you might see in an acting studio. The stage is bare, with the set often being no more than a table and two chairs. The good news is that if one of the short plays is not your cup of tea, it will be over before you begin to lament your choice.

The actors are sharp and energetic, and the evening is thoroughly enjoyable with breaks to refill a beer cup from the keg tapped in the backyard of Planet Ant. Theatre goers have another chance to see the Boxes–the groupings of short plays–this weekend.

Proceeds from each festival are given to one or more directors as a scholarship to help further her career. The winning director of the audience voting is given the opportunity to direct a show with Planet Ant Theatre’s Late Night Series.

Despite the small venue, this year’s production ran like a well-oiled machine with stage manager Patrick Hanley and assistant stage manager/house manager Maddy Rager at the helm with an assist by lighting designer Neil Koivu. Eric Aberasturi was the Jack of All Trades, including keg operator.

Box 1
Purging, written by Ann Marley and directed by Michelle Resnick, featuring Claire Jolliffe and Maggie Beson delivering dialogue at a break-neck pace. At first, they appear to be two roommates or very closefriends, but about half way through the play they deliver lines that make it clear they are actually two facets of the same person. The writing is as quick as the delivery, featuring some one-liners like “Getting my hair cut is the closest I’ll ever come to letting go.” It’s not always pleasant to hear the character’s every thought, feeling and neurosis. But it is provocative.

Written byAbbey Fenbert and directed by Emily Harpe, the two female characters in Mary and Magda continue the theme of women playing off of each other, but in this case the two are polar opposites…or are they? Mary (Becky Dennis) is the scripture-quoting prim counter demonstrator, offering a box of “abstinence” in contrast to Magda’s (Winn Kline) box of condoms. James Rimmel plays the hapless character known only as “guy” who wanders into their space and is thus badgered by them, each trying to get him to choose their side. Although he doesn’t speak a word of dialogue, his facial expression are expressive and at times, hilarious.

American Kids, written by Emily Kaczmarek and directed by Terie Spencer, starts off slow and takes some figuring out. It eventually becomes clear that Jordan, played with brilliance by 14-year-old Forest Gabel, is the survivor of a school shooting. His older friend, Charlie (Phillip Shaun DeVone), is trying to comfort and counsel him, having survived a similar act of violence. The play is a solemn reminder of the heart-wrenching aftereffects these kids continue to endure, long after what has happened to them has left the newspaper headlines.

Box 2
The quirky Insert Token, written by Greg Burdick and directed by Mycah Leigh Artis, hits the ground running with Sebastian (Charles Pichan) demanding to know why he was just-this-side-of kidnapped while on vacation with his family in order to be questioned by the other character, known simply as “Attendant” (Claire Jolliffe). It turns out Sebastian is a wiz-kid, having quickly hit level 17 of a game app called Eureka. “They” (the government? Google? Microsoft?) want to pick his brain on how to solve an impending internet crisis. The play moves quickly and holds the audience interest with ease.

A Play of Disbelief, written by J.J. Steinfeld and directed by Yolanda Fleischer, has a difficult time building momentum. The premise is an engaged couple (Joel Frazee and Autumn Thiellesen) who are having a bedtime conversation. He’s reading Playboy while she is reading a script. He claims to see an actual rabbit run behind the dresser. Is he playing a trick? Is he delusional? It’s hard to say. After she shuts down his amorous efforts and he rolls over to go to sleep, she has second thoughts and decides to go along with the joke.

Substitute X for Danger is a continuation of a play from last year’s Boxfest play, Gypsy Rhymes with Danger, also written by Frannie Shepherd-Bates and Jonathan Davidson, directed by Shepherd-Bates and starring Davidson as John W. B. (better known as John Wilkes Booth.) This time around, John is a substitute teacher. He and one of the students, played by Katie Terpstra, tangle both verbally and otherwise, but I won’t spoil the plot twist. It’s a bit hard to follow.

Box 3

The Gentleman’s Pact, written by Karen JP Howes and directed by Wendy Katz Hiller, takes a while to get to its point. Arthur (Fred Buchalter) has just received a fairly shocking request from Bill (James Rimmel). Arthur’s wife, Evelyn (Kez Settle), enters the scene after the two men have already been verbally sparring to they (or maybe just the audience) is blue in the face. The premise of the play requires almost immediate suspension of disbelief by the audience because there’s no way things would go down this way in real life.

Gel Us, written by Paige Zubel and directed by Jennifer Ward, is another all-female endeavor. Laura (Hannah Taubitz) and Kathy (Claire Jolliffe) are running a marathon, or at least attempting to. Hearing the huffing and puffing and moaning from off-stage before they enter piques the imagination. There’s a back story to why they are in the marathon, and despite their lack of athleticism, it’s clear these two are the kind of friends everyone hopes to have. Jolliffe is in four of the plays in the fest. Her characters show off her noteworthy range.

Box 4

Riot Grrrl 90 written and directed by Dyan Bailey, is definitely one of the stand-outs of the fest. Bailey also plays the narrator, who at 40 is reflecting back on her teenage self, Jen (DeAnnah Kleitz-Singleton). High school is ripe for subject matter, and this tale is evident of that. Jen, her friend Rachel (Janelle Soulliere) and their common male interest, Mike (Andy Reid) quickly remind us of why being an adult is so much better than being a teen. It’s a poignant tale of first love, unplanned pregnancy, and how boys can ruin friendships. Melissa Beckwith, who plays the nun/lawyer/nurse, deserves props for her versatility. This is a short play that really deserves a longer treatment.

Cassiopeia offers an amusing twist on Greek mythology. Written by Christian Simonsen and directed by Andaiye Spencer, it tells the tale of the title character (Shelby Bradley) and her self-centered mother Andromeda (Ayanna Akua), who is willing to sacrifice her as penance for her own lack of hubris. Luckily Perseus (Ethan Kanula) comes to the rescue. Even if you didn’t like Greek mythology, you’ll enjoy this play and maybe even appreciate the classics a bit more along the way.

Box 5

Cushie, written by M.D. Tylicki and directed by Shannon Hurst, is pretty much amusing from beginning to end. Suzie (Alayna Patten) bops on the stage to the tune of the Spice Girls. She’s a teenager, but she’s carrying a Hello Kitty backpack, which is a good indication of her mindset. She has just gone through a break-up — or so she says — but is attempting to get over it by going on a date with Sam (Jake Rydell). But he can’t begin to compete with the memory of her true love, Cushie (Jason Paull). This play is laugh-out-loud fun and the ending is priceless.

Written by Todd Weston and directed by Megan Wright, Chinese or Pizza is the tale of a husband and wife and whether they really want to know the answers to the questions they ask. The husband (Ethan Kankula) finally fesses up to being emotionally wounded by something his wife (Claire Jolliffe, again) has said. Written by Todd Weston and directed by Megan Wright, the action drags and the props seem questionable, unless it’s to show that alcohol is a truth serum.

Strange Fruit Redux catches the audience unaware with the ferocity of its lone character, Nathan Strange (Matthew Webb). Written by Afrika Brown and directed by RoNeesha Jackson, the play starts quietly enough, showing artist Nathan in his home studio, talking on the phone with his mother and his agent in between smoking a cigar and watching bits of news shows and other programs on TV. After his mother tells him she doesn’t want him protesting anymore for fear of what might happen to him, the TV plays a clip of a “Black Lives Matter” protest. The writing is poetic and captivating and Webb’s delivery is spot on. The directing is also creative, and avoids the stagnation that can befall a one-actor, one act performance. There’s a surprise ending, but unfortunately it’s really not a surprise.

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Week of 7/15/2024

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