REVIEW: 2019 Playwrights Festival, Part 1: ‘the best of BAT’s season, so far’


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By Shelli Park

If I were to apply a theme to BAT’s 2019 Playwrights Festival, Part 1, I would say that good and evil, and the art of rationalization, would be that theme. The human condition is perilous. We are faced with situations beyond our control which cause us to have to make decisions, for better or worse. One must accept one’s responsibility and role in the actions chosen, or rationalize and continue down the path with intentional blindness believing that one’s action are justified. Or maybe we flee for our lives because the weight of the moment is too great, as happens in the first play.

The first play is a one act written by Devin Rodger, called ‘Not Food for Monsters’. Rodgers dabbles with the sense of normalcy that can exist in a situation that is definitively not normal. The tightly wound has been released.

Melissa Collins Henderson plays a school office manager, Mrs. Wardell, who has kept herself, and the school, organized and under control for 26 years. A new element that has been added to the administrative staff challenges her sanity.

As the action opens, Mrs. Wardell enters the teachers lounge as a woman now unwound. She shouts, kicks a chair, then sinks onto another chair with her full weight. Her messy hair symbolizes her demeanor to comic perfection. Henderson’s body language reflects a woman in distress, though partially in denial.

A pregnant girl is sleeping in the lounge when Mrs. Wardell enters. The girl, Chloe (Kinsey Lahn), is awakened by the outburst of the previously impeccable Mrs. Wardell’s unusual behavior. Lahn creates a solid counterpoint, grounding the conversation, and dispensing sage advice as the action reaches a fever pitch.

Don’t lose hope. “I’m stronger than you, and I’m NOT FOOD FOR MONSTERS!”

Delightful!

Between plays the sets are changed. I watched as Maggie Lerrick, BAT’s managing director and sometime set designer, assisted by a handful of others, totally transform the stage. Lerrick’s attention to detail, moving a pillow, creating the correct opening with the curtains, straightening a picture on the wall, establishes an aesthetically pleasing experience for the audience. There is an art to set decoration. It was a magical transformation.

The second play is full length. ‘Hardened Criminals’ stars one of my favorite local actors, Michael Mendonsa. His stage presence is so natural that I could be peering through the window of his home observing him in his natural environment. It is easy to forget that I am attending a play.

In ‘Hardened Criminals’ written by Suzanne Bailie and directed by Devin Rodger, Mendonsa plays an anesthesiologist, husband and loving, but frustrated, father named Tom. His wife, Julie (Susan Echols-Orton) is a psychologist. The play opens to a scene after work in Tom and Julie’s living room. The dialogue is superb. Witty, intelligent banter is full of dry humor and genuinely delivered. Echols-Orton is a fantastic counterpart to Mendonsa.

Tom and Julie have a daughter, Beth (Shauna Lloyd) who is caught in the throes of drug addiction. She is married with two young children, and struggling for her life. Beth’s husband, Nate (Phillip Wheeler) is an angry and abusive young man.

Wheeler’s portrayal of Nate is nuanced. He embodies a rough, uneducated, streetwise young man, but is able to blend in threads of an unaffected desire to change, to be a good father, despite his challenges. Wheeler’s performance feels authentic and not forced.

When there is an addiction in a family there are so many layers and complications. Love, lies, good intentions and painful betrayals. Bailie successfully creates this world with just the right amount of humor to ease a bit of the pain.

Tom’s character evolves over the play in a slow, subtle way. He brings us back to the theme to which I referred at the beginning of this review. What is good, what is evil, and what can be rationalized? How does a father care for a hurting child? Can one justify any choice to save that child?

A delightful foil to Tom’s character is Sharon (Kris Keppeler), a co-worker. Sharon is in charge of accounting for the movement of pharmaceuticals in the hospital. She loves cats more than people, is very pragmatic and sensible. It is hard to imagine a more perfect actor to play Sharon. Keppeler’s performance is thoroughly enjoyable. Her manner, facial expressions and vocalization create a credible character.

Choices are made. Will Tom’s experiment work? Will the path he has chosen prove to be successful, and the ends justify the means? Though we are left to process the future on our own, Bailie, Rodgers and cast have taken us on a difficult but satisfying journey.

This evening of performances is, honestly, the best of BAT’s season, so far. The writing and performances are top notch. I look forward to Playwrights Festival, Part 2.

FESTIVAL CONTINUES THROUGH MAY 19
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at Burien Actors Theatre, 14501 4th Ave. SW in Burien (map below).

Tickets are $12, and each ticket includes admission to two plays—a one-act followed by a full-length—and a short talk-back with the audience after each play.

$2 OFF COUPON
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More info at https://burienactorstheatre.org.

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