Riding the pine
Benchwarmers 14 premieres at the Santa Fe Playhouse
Theater audiences are very accommodating. If you tell them the year is 1928, they’ll believe you. If you tell them the broom you’re carrying is a guitar and demonstrate by noiselessly strumming it, they’ll accept that. And if you tell them a park bench on a stage is in fact a row of chairs in the waiting room of a patent office, they’ll go along with that, too, with no fancy special effects required to convince them. If the story and acting are strong, a play without a set or props can be as riveting and emotionally affecting as the grandest spectacle on Broadway. It’s this sensibility that Cristina Duarte, Santa Fe Playhouse artistic director, wants to bring to Benchwarmers 14: Back to Basics, opening on Thursday, June 11, with a gala the following evening.
“We’ve had some very technical shows in past years,” Duarte said, “but this year it’s just the bench and the titles on a screen. Some music in the beginning and again at the end. Simple lighting. And only props the actors bring onto the stage themselves.”
Benchwarmers is an annual one-act playwriting contest for New Mexico residents and an opportunity to witness theater in a raw form: unpublished plays produced for the first time. This year, eight works were selected from a pool of more than 40 submissions, which were first read blind by a small group of Santa Feans who are not affiliated with the Playhouse. Fifteen finalists, ranked by preference, were then handed over to Duarte, who is acting as producer for the entire show as well as directing one of the plays. Initially, 10 plays were going to be included, but they ran into trouble over casting.
“There’s a certain demographic that we’re lacking,” Duarte explained. She has been in Santa Fe for just one year, after 30 years in New York City, and can confirm that what she heard when she arrived is true: “Male actors — thirties to fifties. There’s a real gap. Most plays have men of that age among the characters. And we don’t have enough of them. Right now there are many other productions by other theater companies going on in town, so that made it even more difficult. We really need more men of this age group to join us at the Playhouse.”
One of the plays, Visible, was revised so that a woman could play a part originally written for a man. Such revisions often happen when original plays are first produced, and in future years, Duarte would like to see revision become an established part of the process leading up to opening night. Currently, each writer chooses who directs their play, and then the writer works with the director on casting. “I think revision, developing the plays, should be the main point of this kind of playwright’s forum.”
This year, there are no outright comedies or tragedies. The evening of theater, which will last about an hour and a half with no intermission, focuses on themes of identity, truth, and self-preservation. Each play has a snap to its closure, even if the resolution is ambiguous. In Visible, written by Michael Burgan and directed by Jeff Nell, Jonathan has just been fired from his high-paying job when he meets a homeless woman in a Santa Fe park and learns that fear comes from lack of faith in the unknown. In Relative Humility, written by Barry Hazen and Richard Dargan, and directed by Duarte, a Vietnam veteran forces a reckoning among family members in Tennessee — one of the many settings among the selections. Visible and Relative Humility take place in the present, as does Patent Pending, about a series of intertwined inventions and the people behind them, written by Terry Riley and directed by Danny Kovacs. In Patent Pending, the theme of identity shows up in the stage directions. Riley specifies that one of the characters is a “stereotypically, mildly Asperger’s, pen-protector nerd.”
Confessions of a Character Actor, written by Aaron Leventman and directed by Alaina Warren Zachary, takes place in a Brooklyn apartment in the summer of 1968. David is a struggling actor living with a doting if somewhat overbearing mother. When he gets chosen for the role of a gay cruiser, he must figure out how to explain the role to her, and his casting to himself. May Sarton Dreams Deep, written by Deborah Magid and also directed by Zachary, takes on the love life of the poet May Sarton, who is trying to decide whether or not to stay with her longtime companion, Judy Matlack, whom she met in Santa Fe in 1945. The play takes place in 1958, in New Hampshire, and asks whether love is more important than a writer’s need for solitude. Daniel and the Autumn Folk, written and directed by Jonathan Dixon, reaches furthest back, to Missouri in the 1920s. Here, the theme of identity, of being seen, turns spiritual and symbolic, as Mrs. Turner longs for just a glimpse of her departed husband, through the eyes of an especially sensitive child.
Above, from left; Cliff Russell and David McConnell in Relative Humility and Kathi Collins and Jules Rubin in Patent Pending