Young Playwrights Festival
By Adam Langer
Like many a youth outreach or community service program, Pegasus Players’ Young Playwrights Festival is permeated by an air of self-congratulation. On opening night, thundering applause was bestowed equally upon Pegasus’s board of directors and the young playwrights themselves, as well as the principals and teachers at the schools from which they hailed (though I can’t for the life of me remember a time when I caught sight of my high school principal, let alone saw him reading what anybody wrote in English class). All of this congratulation would be forgivable, however, if it didn’t seem that the young playwrights were getting short shrift.
Though festival coordinator Rolanda Brigham said enthusiastically in her opening-night speech that “everybody’s a winner,” only three plays have been awarded the privilege of a three-week run in the dead of winter, and they seem to have been chosen as much for their messages as for their literary merit. And Pegasus’s frequently perfunctory or bloated productions fail to tighten up the authors’ inchoate glibness or employ appropriate actors. Clearly this festival, now in its 11th year, is better than nothing, and Pegasus deserves some commendation for doing more for teen playwrights than any other company in town. But there’s still something condescending about its approach, better calculated to provide a great grant proposal than great theater.
Certainly young authors need to be supported; they don’t need to be patronized. Artists like Rimbaud, John Kennedy Toole, Jack Kerouac, Sondheim, and Mozart scribbled some promising stuff in their teens. But even though Pegasus has happened upon a trio of smart and insightful playwrights, with the exception of a few moments in Marlene Zuccaro’s concise treatment of Emily Schafer’s Butterflies, little here suggests that the producers believed they were staging legitimate works of theater.
Schafer’s Butterflies, the best of the lot, succeeds largely because Zuccaro and her cast treat it as a literary effort, not a message-laden after-school special. A tersely written account of a young Catholic woman’s guilt-ridden foray into lesbianism with a street-smart, perhaps manipulative fellow student, the play is fraught with tension and spiced with knowing humor and evocative bursts of poetry. The nervous first encounters between Goody Two-shoes Madeline and tough, seductive Jackie are especially well realized in Schafer’s frank, credible writing, made especially tense and involving in dead-on performances by Lynn Stys and Morgan Hallett.
But the drama falters by emphasizing Madeline’s predictable struggle over what to tell mom, and by dismissing far too quickly and conveniently the play’s most intriguing character, Jackie: Madeline shunts her aside as a mere phase she needed to work through. When the play moves out of the realm of the forbidden youthful romance into the all-too-familiar world of mom stumbling upon a cache of love letters, the drama and magic are lost. Nevertheless, Zuccaro’s taut direction and her solid cast make Schafer’s writing consistently intelligent, incisive, and professional.
Less effective is Veronica V. Sansing’s repetitive, predictable Honey. A young Calumet City woman makes plans for a first date, but they’re quickly destroyed by her mother’s plans for a date of her own. To her credit, Sansing is evenhanded, labeling neither the pathetic, lonely mother an ogre nor the bubbly, innocent daughter a hapless victim. And she effectively mines a pedestrian situation for the few universal truths it holds. But the mother-daughter exchanges have a flat, moralistic tone reminiscent of TV drama. And the daughter’s sanitized teen-speak (“Don’t have a cow!”) doesn’t feel authentic.
Still, a production as precise and intelligent as Zuccaro’s of Butterflies might have lifted Sansing’s play out of the realm of the ordinary. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Lucas’s direction is stilted, and–aside from Angela Rena Collins, who’s believable and sympathetic as the heartbroken teen–the cast seem underrehearsed, stumbling over the occasional word and delivering lines monotonously, as if they were in a staged reading rather than a full-blown professional production.
Erik Cameron’s Status Quo, the evening’s longest and most complex offering, is an occasionally inspired and innovative work about a group of slacker teens angered and frustrated by a politician’s use of their friend’s suicide for his own political gain. But it’s paralyzed by poor casting and by Doug Long’s sluggish direction, which robs the script of much of its humor and makes it seem more preachy and disordered than it is. Episodic and occasionally disjointed, Cameron’s play is nevertheless refreshingly nonjudgmental in the way it treats the teens’ drug use and sexual activity, and the playwright gives such topics as Nietzsche, the black power movement, and heroin addiction a rousing 60s-style stoner quality. The dialogue between Cameron’s alter ego Patrick, the angry young intellectual leader, and Ahmad, the black activist teen he befriends during a community service project, is particularly crisp and well realized.
But in the two key roles of Patrick and his heroin-addicted buddy Mark, Long has cast actors who seem way too old, conservative, and clean-cut for the parts. Instead of angst-ridden teens seething with anger and cynicism, Long gives us a pair of disaffected DePaul econ-major types who’d seem more at home watching the Bulls at Kincade’s than discussing Nietzsche or heroin in a teen slacker cafe. Long further compromises Cameron’s promising script with a long-winded, meandering staging that makes virtually every one of the author’s detours seem a verbose eternity.
A more active director, and perhaps one with more time to work on the play, could have focused the plot, shed a great deal of the script’s superfluous narration, and made Cameron’s alienated tone sound authentic rather than imitative. But Long in his rambling staging treats the play like an unedited manuscript–as if he were more concerned with showcasing the author’s youth than his talent, an attitude that ultimately sabotages this festival.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Status Quo (Young Playwrights Festival) photo by Phil Kolmetz.