By Joanne Engelhardt
It’s always smart to offer up a smorgasbord of 10-minute plays because if one or two of them aren’t interesting, well, they’ll be over in 10 minutes. Of course that also means if there are some really good ones, they, too, will be gone in the twinkling of an eye.
That’s the way it is with Actors’ Theatre’s “8 Tens at Eight Festival” now on stage through Jan. 27 at Center Stage Theater in downtown Santa Cruz.
There are some exceptionally fine actors in these vignettes, several of whom make a strong impression in only 10 minutes (or less) because the majority of the plays use different actors. Most notable is vivacious Karin Babbitt who transforms into an absolutely spot-on pushy Indian mother (named Indira) in “Perfectly Frank” and an eager clown recruit in “Clown Camp.”
Other standouts include the twin brothers (not in looks but in temperament) Declan Brennan and Nat Robinson in the strange entry “Morons” by William Baer. Robinson also is satisfactory as the young son, Arthur, in “For Art’s Sake.” The entire three-member cast of Zazu Lein’s “Prison Coach,” a scary good Scott Kravitz as ex-con Leonard, Ali Eppy as savvy grandmother Sondra and Kip Allert as spoiled grandson Jordan round out the top actor category.
As for the plays themselves, two of the best, Lein’s “Prison Coach” and Seth Freeman’s “Imperfectly Frank,” bookend the show at the top of Act 1 and closing Act 2’s curtain. But Act 2 also starts off on an upbeat when Susan Forrest and Karen Schamberg’s “Be it Ever So Humble” comes roaring in. Obviously a crowd-pleaser, this agoraphobic tale features a foul-mouthed auntie named Orlene (an insanely comical Janine Theodore) and big-but-sensitive Karlene (a cross-dressing Marty Lee Jones).
Center Stage’s artistic director, Wilma Marcus Chandler, directs the “Be It Ever So Humble” segment with a fast pace and frenetic action. A little more action would have been nice in “Just Say It,” which is the least authentic piece of the eight. Marlene Miller’s dialogue seems stilted and phony. Even worse, the play just doesn’t go anywhere.
The same can be said of “Dudes Like Us” by Ian McRae. While there’s a ton of four-letter (and other George Carlin) words spoken by Butch (a cranky Steven Capasso) and Mickey (a philosophical Rick Kuhn), 10 minutes drags on interminably, then ends abruptly.
Director Marcus Cato did what he could with a clever idea (a clown drill sergeant training clown recruits in Dan Borengasser’s “Clown Camp”), but some of the physical and verbal humor bits just aren’t that amusing. Too bad because Ian McRae as drill sergeant Phineas P. Japester rings all he can out of the unfunny lines.
Various musical pieces are used to segue between one short play and the next, giving the hard-working stage crew a chance to clear one scene and set another. Music also is used to great effect in “For Art’s Sake” by Elyce Melmon. The storyline isn’t original (girl climbs out of a painting to talk to a young man who is visiting the museum with his mother), but the beauty of the girl (an enchanting Danielle Crook), and the clarity of her lovely singing voice saves this little entry from mediocrity.
This is Actors’ Theatre’s 18th annual 10-minute play festival, with these eight plays winning out of the 125 submitted for consideration. From Jan. 31 through Feb. 3 there will be staged readings of the eight “Best of the Rest” of the plays submitted.
“8 Tens at 8” offers shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $20 for general admission and $18 for seniors and students with a special $30-for-two price on Thursdays and matinees. For more information and tickets go to www.brownpapertickets.com. Center Stage Theater is located at 1001 Center St.