Rid­ing the pine

Bench­warm­ers 14 pre­mieres at the Santa Fe Play­house

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

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

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