The spotlight once again turns to the woman director for BoxFest Detroit 2011, a mixture of the familiar and the new. Artistic director Molly McMahon and executive director Kelly Rossi return to the festival, once again making the most of the Furniture Factory space and its limitless permutations of rolling blue flats. Ten new plays, some helmed by BoxFest Detroit veterans and some by first-time directors, bring opportunities and challenges for playwrights, directors, and performers alike, and the festival’s festive atmosphere again prevails.
The short plays are a little longer this year; although the basic “box” system of programming blocks remains intact, the pacing has changed. Whereas last year’s boxes were mostly populated with a triptych of lightning-fast one-acts, this year finds the majority of boxes with just two plays. It’s a more than acceptable variation, as the longer fifteen- to twenty-minute intermissions between boxes are well met by a supply of donations-encouraged beer, wine, and concessions, and the pressure feels ever so slightly loosened for stage manager Meghan Lynch and assistant stage manager Jon Pigott to keep things running on time. If there’s any melee, it’s occurring behind the scenes — the spacious lobby has a welcoming and jovial atmosphere, great for engaging conversations with the directors and performers and retrospection on this year’s ten offerings.
Box 1 hosts the longest play of the festival, the enigmatic Maybe (by Kelly Rossi; director Crystal Reign Brock), in which four women arrive in an empty room and come to the realization that they’re dead. Since they were all friends in real life, foul play is suspected and ultimately confirmed, but the bickering Beauty (Ileah Nichols), Mary (Heather Sejnowski), and Marjorie (Hassae Maria) are cut short when Sera (Jen Bindeman) is drawn to an exit only she can see and disappears. Brock ably handles Rossi’s well-mystified mythology, which keeps the central relationships developing and the logic of this mysterious afterlife at palatable amounts of inexplicable. Despite some fumbling pacing and the perils of a self-consciously blank environment, the predicament is interesting and the characters engaging and distinct — from Bindeman’s earthy earnestness to Maria’s delightfully pissy rejoinders.
Crime is rampant in Box 2, with a melodrama followed by a pitch-dark comedy, both of which carry a palpable air of danger. First, Falling From Grace (by Savannah Ganster; director K Edmonds) begins with redemptive husband and father Lou (Jonathan Davidson) readying himself to end his affair. His lover (Heather Sejnowski) had other plans; what follows is a textbook case of heightening the stakes, fleshed out by two vitally committed and physically demanding performances. The lighter Kill Me Please (by Rhea MacCullum; director Hillary Sea Bard) finds a young woman (Amanda Ewing) awaiting her Prince Charming, alone, in the park, in the dead of night. Enter Josh Cousineau, who can’t believe she is willing — nay, eager — to be the next victim of a serial killer at large. Bard plays into the obvious ingredients of a meet-cute, but Ewing’s charming self-assured nattering and Cousineau’s unease preserve a nugget of worry about the outcome.
Box 3 opens with the deliberately obscure Live at the Orient Express (written and directed by Barbara Troy). Over a Chinese dinner, Maggie (Jackie Strez) drills her friend Zee (Molly McMahon) about the latter’s weird proclivities as a sort of unwitting one-woman adoption service. The story fades in and out of more commonplace rapid-fire conversation, like something out of Tarantino, leading to a strange and convenient climax with supporting cast Caroline Rankin and Aaron Timlin. This is contrasted by the clean and effective A Little Experimenting (by Rhea MacCullum; director Kelly Komlen), in which ironically named daughter Chastity (Mackenzie Conn) is prodded by her mother (Linda Ramsay) to be the lesbian Mom is so sure she is. A single-premise vignette of missed communication and familial humiliation, real-life parent and child Ramsay and Conn are superb at demonstrating the agony of not listening versus not wanting to hear; their organic humor is a highlight.
The quiet camaraderie of delilah. (by Len Cuthbert; director Katie Galazka) begins Box 4, in which the title character (Kirsten Knisely), hospitalized with cancer, must convince her best friend and cheerleader (Heather Sejnowski) to lend her a different kind of support. The story feels like one that’s been played out previously in popular culture, but Sejnowski’s take on an idiosyncratic woman prone to chicken jokes makes the character feel personal instead of generic, and Knisely handles the big-speech elements of the script with honesty and compassion. On its heels is Clown Therapy (by Nina Mansfield; director Barbie Amann Weisserman), which finds couple Maggie (Nancy Cooper) and Frank (Jim Duncan) taking their troubles to a therapist (Sonja Marquis). The play prides itself on subverting and turning on expectations, and although the scripted reversals work well enough, Cooper and Duncan’s easy sniping ranks among its most rewarding moments.
The rapid-fire succession of three plays thrives in Box 5, beginning with a sitcom-tinged AM or PM (by Hillary Sea Bard; director Megan Wright). The plot takes the old he-said, she-said trope and turns it on its head: a jilted boyfriend (Casey Hibbert) angles to win back his ex (Paige Biggs) by getting a job, but his chosen line of (illegal, dangerous) work raises questions about his grown-up decision making. The confrontation tends to the exclamatory, but the choice seems to serve the mood of the piece, and Hibbert and Biggs have fun with the will-they-or-won’t-they beats. The title says it all in Death of a Snowman (by Daniel Guyton; director Jackie Strez), in which young Charlotte (Indigo Colbert) considers the mortality of the snowman she created (Aaron Timlin), in a ponderous but ultimately touching scene. The play manages to stretch beyond its exceptional and hilarious costuming; Colbert’s little girl is contemplative without being precocious, and scene partner Timlin uses a vocal affectation that provides hilarity without hijacking the connection. Finally, the box ends with a punchline in Kung-Foolery (by Brett Hursey; director Angie Kane Ferrante), which finds a put-upon wife (Michelle King) scolding her husband Barry (Ian Hector) about his unacceptable behavior during visits by her mother (Jean Pilon). King’s world-weariness starts to feel misplaced until the viewer gets a load of Hector, whose insane dedication and outstanding physical comedy sell the piece.
Although themes of death and mirth predominate in BoxFest Detroit 2011, the festival doesn’t feel like the same story played on a loop. Considerable variation in writing, and even more so in direction and performance, gives each of these short plays a distinctive mark that stands on its own. More importantly, although the festival order and content is obviously arranged thoughtfully, its purpose remains to showcase women directors old and new, and to provide opportunities for all metro Detroit theater artists in the process, regardless of the final set list. Happily, BoxFest Detroit once again communicates its mission as successfully as it executes it.