Los Angeles Theater Review: THE ECHO ONE ACTS 2014 (The Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village)

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by Jason Rohrer on August 4, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Here’s the thing: an evening of one-act plays always reminds me of those Night of Scenes showcases back in school.  It’s a good chance for writers, actors, directors, and designers to work out, but for the audience…it’s a night of scenes.  So much can go wrong.  In almost every show of any length, there’s an imperfect element.  If the writing’s good, the direction’s a little off; if the director’s got it, one of the actors won’t.  Try that six times in two hours.  Which brings us to the juxtaposition problem: let’s say a fifteen-minute show is really excellent.  Top quality all around.  Before you’ve had a chance to appreciate it, another one jumps on top of it.  Then another.  All plays about different things, starring different people, with different themes and intentions.

It’s the writing, though, really.  A whole satisfying story in ten or fifteen minutes is a tall order.  Lots of great plays have been written in one act, but very few classics are less than a half-hour.  The reason we can remember a bunch of specific Twilight Zone episodes is that Twilight Zone remains an anomaly in the history of omnibus entertainments; also because we watched them in our formative years before we could tell that the most memorable thing about many of them is a twist ending out of O. Henry; most of all because the vast majority of notable Twilight Zones were written by three extraordinary men: Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson.  The Echo Theater Company can’t afford to commission full-length work by the modern equivalents of Beaumont and Serling, so they sometimes do shows like the one running now at their Atwater Village space.

There are measures a producing body can take.  Unity can come from employing a single excellent design team (sets by Shalome Pilon; costumes, Kathryn Poppen; sound, Josh Fehrmann; lights, Christina Robinson; stage manager, Marissa Dramissi; I’d like to know who made the beautiful programs).  For the 2014 edition of The Echo One Acts, producers Chris Fields and Gwenn Morreale have taken this step, as well as that of asking the playwrights they commissioned to restrict their settings to a single bedroom.  It helps.

“What Are You Doing on the Bed?” by Shawna Casey, directed by Jennifer Chambers

  • A dog (Garrett Hanson) and a cat (Sarah Jane Morris) wrangle and tease and come to an understanding.  Casey not quite transcends the domestic animal motif and brings the characters into the land of human allegory (boys, you see, are big clumsy dogs, and girls are slinky cats, and they complement each other so well; the playwright seems unaware the banality of this epiphany).  It’s brief and fluffy-sexy, well-performed if almost inaudibly in Hanson’s case; but it’s flatly directed, so that its written crescendo, a slight but pleasant tag, just fades into the scene change.

“General Sherman’s Hollow Body” by Wesley Walker, directed by the author

  • In post-Civil War New York, two Irish sisters (Alana Dietze and Jeanette McMahon) seduce, drug, and somehow invade a punchy William Tecumseh Sherman (Darrett Sanders).  The acting is superb, the mood fantastic and fascinating.  The direction and writing sustain a menacing titillation over several scenes in twenty minutes.  And if you can tell me what it’s about, I hope you will.  Women’s suffrage? The immigrant experience? The burning of Atlanta? It feels like a piece of a larger work I would very much like to see directed and acted just like this, but it’s not a play now.

“As We Sleep” by John Lavachielli, directed by Kevin Hoffer

  • Jennifer Chambers and Michael McColl look a little young to play a middle-aged couple having one of those late-night revelation-and-breakthrough conversations, but they do.  The writing is spare and harsh and funny; this is far the most successful of the evening’s scripts.  As an actor, Chambers is very good at sustaining character and mood, but either she or her director should acknowledge her beat changes in this scene.  McColl gets all the good lines but it doesn’t look like he even needs them.  His every grunt and gesture are true.  He is remarkable, and my biggest reason yet to regret having missed Echo’s recent production of Firemen.

“The Optimist” by Brian Tanen, directed by Amanda Saunders

  • An uncouth rookie constable (Parker Phillips) and a “lady Chief Inspector” (Tara Karsian) investigate the site of what looks like a multiple child kidnapping. It is the bedroom of some famous children you know from literature. Yes, Constable, they did in fact fly out the window in the version we know. But this play brutalizes and rapes one of the best fairy tales ever written for no apparent purpose and no possible value, an ugly sacrilege encased in a few otherwise droll minutes. The direction is fine, and Phillips is fine. Karsian is so excellent in every moment that I can’t say she’s wasted in this nasty little thing.

“ ‘Say You, Say Me’ by Lionel Ritchie” by Miki Johnson, directed by Chris Fields

  • A prostitute (Erin Washington, with gravity and credibility) screws, and screws with, various johns (Justin Huen, Karl Herlinger, Gareth Williams) one night.  Some of the writing is glibly funny, though Fields’ direction and Washington’s acting choose against the laughs, to nobody’s benefit.  It’s a difficult piece, partly because it’s not sure what it has to say. Some circumstance and dialogue have a shallow resonance; Williams steals the show with a monologue.  There is dramatic coherence in this lights up/lights down string of scenes, but little to take away.

“Laileen on the Way Down” by Jen Silverman, directed by Alana Dietze

  • I have to confess that I have been in love with Alana Dietze since she wore those footy jammies in God’s Ear a couple years back.  Turns out she can direct as well as act, which is lucky for Jen Silverman, who has built a Hallmark-y aphorism into a tame little sex comedy about why not to be tame.  Carol Locatell and Daniel Hagin play, very well, a lady and her beau tasked with explaining to her son (Jesse Fair, one of those hider-actors who needs to get his performance out to the people who paid for it; he’s not bad, but so insular and inexpressive as to suggest confidence-related stage fright) that life is not lived if it is lived according to a rulebook.  Dietze corrals the actors and gives them interesting stuff to do and they do it well enough that despite the writing, I liked this show.

I notice that I have used the pejorative “little” for some of these scripts, and not for others. There’s a reason. “As We Sleep” does not feel little, despite its short running time, because of its universal truths and earned laughs. The not-much-longer “General Sherman’s Hollow Body,” despite seeming unfinished, feels epic in its mysterious themes and tone. As a whole, though, the evening does not feel big, because much of the material is so small.

The Echo One Acts 2014
The Echo Theater Company
3269 Casitas Ave. in Atwater Village
Fri and Sat at 8, Sun at 7
scheduled to end on August 24, 2014
EXTENDED to August 31, 2014
for tickets, call 310-307-3753 or visit www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

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