The Buffalo Quickies
A review with opening night photos
By ANTHONY CHASE
The Buffalo Quickies, an annual festival of short plays, has been an Alleyway Theatre tradition for 30 years. This year’s installment has taken on a special character due to the unpredictable nature of a pandemic. Not knowing whether our period of isolation was, indeed, coming to an end, Alleyway created an in-person experience with built in social distancing. We were promised an experience that would be, “Safe, socially distanced, and (mostly) outdoors!”
They delivered all that, but also an evening that is exciting, fresh, and seems quite urbane. Pedestrians along Main Street were intrigued by the vision of fully produced plays with live actors being performed in storefronts, and curious about the glowing headphones we were required to wear. (Andy Borchick provided the flawless sound for the event).
There was a special feeling of exuberance at being assembled for live downtown theater, and maybe a bit of hesitancy as friends double-checked, “Is it okay to hug you?” This is a community that has suffered loss during the pandemic, and for whom being able to assemble has particular meaning. Theater on Zoom has sustained some of us, or at least has gotten us through the months of isolation, but it has not been the same as joining together with others for a shared, live, theatrical experience.
The audience was divided into five groups, and each was assigned an usher who guided us as we rotated through six different locations, where each play in this year’s lineup had its own cast, director, set, and crew. Storefronts and windows on Main Street were used as performance spaces. The audience sat in chairs outside while the actors performed, indoors, on the other side of the glass. We were given headphones, which glowed in colors assigned to the audio channels for each show. Casts perform these short plays five times a night.
Just like the short story, the short play is a distinct and worthy genre. Susan Westfall, co-founder and literary director of Miami’s City Theatre, described by “American Theatre” magazine as, “the leading purveyor of short-form theater in the country,” described a superior short play as one that has, “really interesting, rich characters who are going to surprise you … but in whom you are going to see yourself or someone you know,” and suggests that, “the ultimate test, even for a farce, is, ‘Are you thinking about this play an hour later?’”
I would add that a good short play needs to have the same arc as a full-length work, including a conclusion. Unsuccessful attempts tend to hammer away at one funny idea, like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, the sort that the writers can’t seem to find a way to get out of. Indeed, some short plays seem like staged jokes, rather than plays at all.
While the staging and performances of this year’s “Quickie” plays was uniformly excellent, the scripts themselves were a mixed array, ranging from the excellent, to the okay. Nonetheless, the overall experience is thrilling, especially in this unique arrangement, and after months of deprivation.
The first play I saw on the opening night was “Grown-Ass Louis,” by Bruce Walsh. Louis is a man stuck in the childhood memory of sending a letter to his recently deceased father, attached to a balloon. Now a “grown-ass” man, Louis can’t let go of that mystical moment.
Trevor Dugan plays Louis, and David C. Mitchell plays everyone else, including Louis’s science teacher, his mother, and an officer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who finds Louis’s balloon, which has strangled a dolphin – “What were you kids thinking back in the ‘90s, releasing all those balloons?” The actual appearance of the unfortunate dolphin highlights another element of the short-play genre – playwrights need not flinch from any flight of fancy. Anything can be made to happen in the compressed time and on the compressed space of the stage.
Louis’s thoughts range from the mystical, to the scientific, to the pragmatic as he continues to obsess over the nature of existence, of death, and whether his father ever received his message.
Walsh attaches a sweet conclusion to his play, offering a button that is somewhat pat, but provides closure to a play that is, otherwise, an unresolved contemplation.
Dugan’s performance successfully shows the residual eleven-year-old in his portrayal of grown-ass Louis. His deadpan reactions offer fodder for broadly comical Mitchell to feast upon. The play, directed by Chris Handley, and performed in the windows of “dPost” on Main Street, provided a strong and highly satisfying beginning to my evening of short plays.
We were next walked down to the front of Shea’s 710 to see “In Transit” by Rachel Lynett. This play, for me, would turn out to be the highlight of the Quickies. Here, two women with shared history unexpectedly run into each other at an airport. For ten years, they were a couple. This is their first encounter, five years after the breakup.
Like August Strindberg, Lynett reveals her characters to us gradually, through dialogue, a layer at a time. At first, Becca and Ryan are awkward with each other. Little by little, they work through this. They catch up on each other’s lives. They reminisce. They sort through past differences. An apology is rendered. They recall their great compatibility. Clearly this was a great love. Clearly there was a great betrayal. But by whom?
I admire the unpredictability of this play. Lynett refuses any obvious or comforting conclusions as she shows us how these women see themselves and how they see each other. In ten critical minutes, each woman is obliged to assess decisions that impact a lifetime. Victoria Pérez and Smirna Mercedes navigate these maneuvers deftly, bringing nuance to each glance and inflection. The play’s final moment, a mere gesture, elicited a gasp from the audience, followed by a quiet understanding and recognition. It was an exquisite theatrical moment, and a model of a superior ten-minute play, confidently directed by Josie DiVincenzo.
The next play, “Pay Your Ferryman” by Lauren Davenport, picks up again on the theme of death and memory. For the event, our group was moved indoors to the Alleyway Main Stage, literally. We masked up and were marched through the stage door and up onto the stage itself. The auditorium was outfitted as an industrial workroom for Charon, ferryman of Hades. (Dyan Burlingame, Lynn Koscielniak, and Emily Powne provided “Environment Design” for the festival, and in every instance, the fully realized designs would be worthy of a full-length play. Todd Warfield designed the entirely effective costumes). The audience is told that we have, in fact, died, and we will need to pay our ferryman if we hope to cross the waters into the world of the dead. We have the option to pay the ferryman one, two, or none of gold “obols” that are provided on our seats, and our level of generosity towards this essential worker will determine our fate. It seems, you see, that our ferryman, an essential worker played with world-weary exasperation by Victor M. Morales, is woefully overworked, especially during a pandemic, and is in desperate need of a break!
Charon shares his sad tale and particularly recalls the memory of one girl, before we are sent on our way. While I found Charon’s situation to be affecting, eventually I found his tale to be wearying. Under the direction of Handley, Morales delivers the monologue with clarity and just enough gentle humor to keep us amused, at least for the duration of a short play.
Back outdoors, we were guided to the Alleyway marquee on Main Street to see “Lily and Tessa’s Super Star Show, Episode 37” by Devon Hayakawa. Here, we find ourselves peering into the bedroom of a twelve-year-old girl. She’s one half of Lily and Tessa, a podcast variety show that these close friends have done 36 times before. Today, however, Lily is late. Maybe she’s not coming at all. Through her performance, which culminates with a sock puppet recreation of Lily and Tessa’s big fight, the crux of the matter is revealed. So too, through the closed door and a menacing phone, are Tessa’s loving dad and Lily’s odious mom.
While the premise has potential, this is a play that simply runs its course, revealing its secrets without struggle or complexity. There were so many more places to go.
Directed by Robyn Lee Horn, the performance of young Jane Hereth, who many might remember from MusicalFare’s “Fun Home,” (also starring Horn) is captivating and affecting. She energetically throws herself, full-throttle into the performance of episode 37, while navigating a confusing and unjust teenage world, in which your closest friend can become your most toxic enemy in an instant. Through her performance, she reveals the further potential of a script that contains some moving writing and valuable insight, and with Tessa, Hayakawa has created a rich and surprising character, a smart and resilient girl, who refuses to be pathetic.
Next up was “Helen Mirren Takes a Day Off” by Alix Lin, performed in the window of Shea’s Smith Theatre. Directed by Steve Vaughan, the play portrays Mirren as a cartoon diva, self absorbed and oblivious to the needs of anyone but her terribly spoiled dog. Shanntina Moore tears into the role of this fierce fictive Mirren with zest, savoring each outrageous tantrum and histrionic. She is aided by a costume design by Warfield that gives her a Norma Desmond turban and a robe with luxuriously full sleeves. She works it!
This little caprice is a funny idea that pounds and pounds its way to a trite conclusion, but Moore gives it her all. This is a case of clever sketch writing -- and some of the lines are priceless! -- without any real place to go. Vaughan and Moore bring shape to the material, building the diva's range to crescendo, climax, and its wryly touching conclusion.
My evening ended with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a musical based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story about a woman suffering an emotional collapse after the birth of her baby. Her husband enforces a cruel and arguably abusive cure. Confined to a room with yellow patterned wallpaper for a regimen of enforced rest, the woman begins to see a woman in the wallpaper.
A seminal work of American feminist literature, the story has been dramatized many times, including twice starring Agnes Moorehead on the radio show, “Suspense” in 1948 and in 1957. This musical version has book and lyrics by Sam Norman and music by Eliza Randall. Susan Drozd directs and Philip Farugia is the Music Director.
It's an impressive little musical. Still, while at17 minutes, it is the longest play in the festival, it seems to crave more time to tell its story. The element of the unreliable narrator is lost. Rather than enriching the story, the musical score dominates it, submerging the central character beneath the swell of its minor key melodies, and obscuring critical dramatic transitions. The Everywoman element of a story in which a nameless woman, renamed Charlotte, presumably after Charlotte Perkins Gilman, sees countless women in the wallpaper, is here given specificity.
I admire the way in which this retelling of the tale amplifies its feminist elements. The physician husband of the original story is reinforced by the additional male authority of the absent male physician who had decreed the inhuman treatment. Additionally, the women’s mother, and eventually her sister-in-law, question whether these men really know what’s best.
This effort is a fine example of how a short works festival can serve as an incubator for a play that is worthy of further development. An able cast of actual relatives gives this claustrophobic tale a wholehearted and passionate outing. Kelly Copps as the confined woman; her real-life husband, Steve Copps, as her smothering fictional husband; and her real life sister Amy Jakiel, as her sister in law. The setting of the Shea’s courtyard, and confining the action within the space of windows, highlights the story’s theme of imprisonment. And while I see further opportunity to develop this show, I will say, I was still thinking about what I had seen in this ambitious little musical, hours later.