Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking a trip to Bloomington, Indiana. Home of the Hoosiers and the campus of Indiana University, this Indiana city offers beautiful landscape and tons of Bloomington bars and Bloomington restaurants. Other than a trip to the Upland Brewery, where some of Indiana’s best beer is brewed, the main event of this road trip was my first ever experience at the Bloomington Playwrights Project. You may remember their 2009 Indianapolis Fringe Theatre Festival entry, Sex/Death, a gem of a theatre piece that presented several original short plays about sex and/or death. The Bloomington Playwrights Project is dedicated to providing a space for Indiana playwrights to submit their work and participate in readings, workshops and full scale productions of their scripts. The BloomingPlays Festival is the culmination of the Bloomington Playwrights Projects annual script development project, presenting four short plays.
At the end of each summer, the Bloomington Playwrights Project selects eight plays, by Indiana’s finest up and coming playwrights, to workshop over the course of a year. After numerous readings, feedback sessions with audiences and opportunities for rewrites, eight plays were narrowed down to four that would participate in the BloomingPlays Festival. Each show receives a full scale production. Audiences are invited to attend for three weekends as the four short plays are presented in tandem in a main stage production and an After Dark Series. In the main stage are Russ Miles by April Smallwood, Thespian by Chris White and Virginia’s Last Drive by Matthew Anderson. The After Dark Series features How to Kill by Gabe Gloden.
The chance to experience original work by Hoosier playwrights doesn’t come often in Indiana. Once a year, the indyFringe Festival is able to provide many playwrights the opportunity to showcase their work. The indyFringe Building is a constant home for playwrights by providing cheap space for use and programing new Indianapolis festivals like DivaFest. But short of a trip to the New Harmony Project each May in New Harmony, Indiana, there are scant other opportunities to experience new play development. For this reason, the playwrights selected by the Bloomington Playwrights Project for the BloomingPlays Festival are already champions of Indianapolis theatre. On the flip side, how can I pass up a chance to share my feedback with these in process playwrights? Read on for my complete review of each show in the BloomingPlays Festival!
Russ Miles by April Smallwood
April Smallwood’s script Russ Miles presents a challenging character driven script that explores ideas of self destruction, father-son bonds and jealousy. Her title character, Russ Miles (Frank Buczolich), lives a slovenly lifestyle consumed by alcohol induced rage. With two sons by different mothers, he fails to balance his relationships with them creating family conflict seeped in beer. Smallwood cleverly sets the scene for Russ with a brief interaction between him and Pam (Gail Bray), who is assumed to be another in a long line of disgruntled women he has broken emotionally.
The depth of Russ’ emotional baggage is revealed through his interactions with his sons. Todd Miles (Derrick Krober) fills the role of the extremely devoted yet often verbally abused offspring of Russ, who is unable to walk out on his dad. In sharp contrast, his brother Mike Miles (Taylor Crousore) is the distant yet favored son, returning home on a school break. In a classic triangle of emotions, Russ’ favoritism of one son over the other creates an awkward and tense reunion of the men, who share an undeniable bond.
Smallwood’s writing is sensitive and honest with a deep understanding of the intricacies of the relationships between her characters. The production’s weaknesses with low-production quality and pacing issues didn’t hinder the success of Smallwood’s intuitive writing style. Through the exploration of this self-destructive alcoholic louse of a father’s idiosyncrasies, she knowledgeably shares a gentle look into the intricacies of such perverted father son relations and the jealousy and compassion that can pervade them. It is difficult to fully develop characters and issues as complex as in Russ Miles with such rigid time constraints, apparent in Smallwood’s condensed conflict and resolution. Russ Miles feels like it wants to be a full length script. I hope Smallwood keeps writing, and I especially hope to see more by this Indiana playwright.
Thespian by Chris White
Chris White’s Thespian is a hilarious buddy comedy with real edge. Two roofers, Jeffery (Ben Smith) and Caine (Joe Bolinger), take a train trip to a first time audition, where one hopes to make it as an actor. As Jeffery nervously prepares for his audition, Caine offers sage advice and attempts to beef up a lackluster resume. Theatre jokes abound as two meat heads share a nervous moment in preparation for the big chance. White offers farcical believability in a world where everyone is in search of their fifteen minutes of fame. With spot on performances by Smith and Bolinger and Chad Robinovitz’s keen director’s eye, this script works perfectly. This ten minute play is Humana Festival ready, in my opinion. Depauw University faculty member Chris White has a clear comedic understanding and should no doubt keep writing.
Virginia’s Last Drive by Matthew Anderson
Matt Anderson is no stranger to Indianapolis performing arts, having recently performed in DivaFest’s Moment of Impact and holding down a full time position as an actor at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. This actor tries his hand at writing in Virginia’s Last Drive. Virginia (Linda Ostermeier), an eighty year old woman verging on senile, turns up for her weekly date at the DMV to drive her favorite DMV agent around for yet another driver’s test. However, when Alex (Kelly Lusk) is assigned to her case, she ventures on the road with a new tester. Zaniness abounds as Virgina acts as incompetent chauffeur and wise old sage.
I simply love Anderson’s sketch of Virgina as the crazy old lady with important bits of advice and a friendly outlook on the world. She is an interesting character who offers many possibilities and directions, and offers up wholesome fun on stage. However, his attempts at developing the by-the-book Alex leaves much to be desired. With little conflict or action to rely on, Anderson is trapped in his own transparent devices as the fearful Alex prays for his life while Virginia is behind the wheel. A little more development of action and conflict could make these characters soar, yet Anderson’s writing feels hampered by a lack of clear understanding of one of half of his characters. Fleshing Alex out requires a bit more work, before this script is really ready to move forward.
How to Kill by Gabe Gloden
How to Kill by Gabe Gloden offers an inventive idea with an enthusiastic sense of humor. Keith (Jonathan B. Lerner) has found a way to cope with his neurotic tendencies: kill people. Keith doesn’t literally go on killing sprees, rather he fantasizes about killing those around him as a way to deal with his nerves. His best buddy Rob (Daniel J. Petrie) is the picture of confidence, sexualizing any and every being that comes near him. His love interest Meredith (Shannon Walsh) is a nurse with neurosis of her own. As the three collide for a dinner get together, Keith’s fantasy killing sprees get out of hand.
Gloden certainly presents an original idea in his comedic script. He also employs incredibly interesting devices to delve into Keith’s darkest fantasies. It’s clear Gloden has no lack of creativity and imagination when it comes to the stage. However, his handle on plot development leaves much to be desired. Though I found his characters extremely interesting, I was confused about how and why they came together. As the story progressed, the script seemed to become a vehicle for Gloden to share his vivid imagination. Yet, reason and purpose remained elusive. Gloden’s interesting ideas and characters soon found themselves meandering with no clear direction in sight. Had he resolved some sort of conflict, his script would have been a total success. Instead, he wrote himself into and then out of corners in a nonspecific way.
The BloomingPlays Festival is going on now through May 29. With only one more weekend to catch this important Bloomington arts offering and support real Indiana playwrights, don’t hesitate to make plans for an Indianapolis day trip to Bloomington. While you are there check out all the Bloomington restaurants and Bloomington bars that make this Indiana college town full of Bloomington culture.
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Now through May 29
Bloomington Playwrights Project
107 West Ninth Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47404