The 900-second play’s the thing
Fifteen minutes feels like an eternity when one is waiting for a bus on a cold day, put on hold, or trying to fall asleep. But in the world of the theater, a quarter of an hour often isn’t enough time to develop a full scene. However, for the one-act works in the Benchwarmers series, a complete play must unfold in the space of that time— with character development, drama, action, and all. The Santa Fe Playhouse presents the ninth incarnation of the series, a showcase for the work of local playwrights.
Benchwarmers, said Playhouse board member Dan Gerrity, “is about the writer, always, and each writer has a unique and distinctive voice.” Gerrity, along with the rest of the Playhouse board, read their way through more than 60 submissions in order to narrow the performance down to eight plays. “The selections reflect the consensus of the reading committee,” Gerrity said. “We choose based on a knowledge of the Playhouse audience and what we think is really theatrical.” And because the reading process is blind— the readers didn’t know whose work they were reading— veteran writers and newbies had an equal shot at seeing their plays onstage.
Besides the time limit, each play must use a bench as its main set, though a small prop or two is perfectly acceptable. For Charles Tichenor, whose play Jerry, Kyle, and the Big Parade was his first entry submitted for consideration in the program, it helped to be given some structure. “Sometimes I don’t have an idea for a story, just a character,” Tichenor said. “But the bench was a great building block.” In his piece, Tichenor uses the bench as a place for two men with very different views to discuss the big-city gay-pride parade that passes in front of them. Theirs isn’t one of those right-view-versus-wrong-view arguments, though. Jerry and Kyle make valid points about the flamboyance of the unseen (to the audience) parade. In fact, it’s this contrast of opinion that makes the script so dynamic. “Sometimes,” Tichenor said,” we get so caught up in political correctness that we become judgmental”— something both characters slip into throughout the piece.
While Tichenor’s play speaks to political stereotypes and perceptions, Gary Dontzig’s Dog Story turns typical theater on its head. Of the four characters, two are human and two— the more dynamic and funny two— are dogs. The Emmy Award-winning Dontzig, who wrote for TV’s Suddenly Susan and Murphy Brown and cowrote the pilot for Hannah Montana, questioned his own inspiration. “When I wrote for television, the stories came out of my life; full-length pieces come from inside. These 15-minute plays, I don’t know where they come from.”
Wherever it came from, Dog Story is fun. Gerrity, who directs the piece, described it as “a nice juxtaposition between two characters [the dogs] who live in the now with two people who have so much baggage.” The dogs have the advantage of being able to hear and react to the conversation between the dog owners, while the humans can only react to the action of the animals. And though the animals’ immediate concern is the present, they have a larger grasp on the world.
Sometimes, though, it’s mystery that sets theatergoers on the edge of their seats. For Claire and Ricky, the characters in K.L. Huertas’ two-hander The Passed Pawn, the connection between them becomes obvious to the audience before it does to the characters, creating tension that floats off the stage. Claire, in crisis because of her husband’s hospitalization, meets Ricky, an odd young man who serves as her confidant and provides a connection to her husband. Because of Ricky’s mental disorder, which is revealed through his stilted speech, he offers an emotionally detached intimacy that allows Claire to concentrate on her sorrows and to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of life. “[Ricky] seldom asks questions,” Huertas said, “he simply states things.” This allows him to bring Claire into the present and away from her pain. “I liked the idea of them talking about the here and now,” Huertas said, and it is this choice that prevents the play from becoming sappy.
Benchwarmers also includes Thomas Woodward’s farcical look at beauty pageants, And the Winner Is ..., which tweaks the beautyqueen stereotype like it’s twirling a fiery baton. Bobbie, a beauty queen, is a subversive advocate for “every plain and not-so-terrific looking woman out there.” The fictional Ms. America pageant has a familiarity of place and time that Susan Apker’s Le Fou, set in 1940s Paris, does not. In that piece, two cabaret singers trade barbs — and songs— as they compete to decide who will be the most remembered.
After the curtain closes on Benchwarmers 9, theatergoers get another weekend of performances. At 8 p.m. Feb. 27 and 2 p.m. Feb. 28, seven honorable mentions take over Santa Fe Playhouse for staged readings.
Judith Jones-Arute, left, and Pal Dybel in And the Winner Is... by Thomas Woodward Top, Tad Jones as Maurice Chevalier in Susan Apker’s Le Fou