The 24 Hour Play Festival Was Two Hours of Pure Fun

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If you’re a writer, the only thing worse than a blank page is a blank page with a deadline.  If you’re an actor, having an extremely short window to learn your lines is surely daunting. What if you put those two challenges together? What you get is the 24 Hour Play Festival, a fundraising event for Theatre Lab and The Players Project Theatre Company. The annual event is a perfect storm for theatre talents: writers are given one week to write and polish their scripts for a short, one act play. That may not sound that bad to the average theatre fan, but a week can feel like a short hour if you’re struggling to find your muse. Once the scripts are collected, they are randomly assigned to directors, who are then randomly assigned actors (using the tried and true “names in a hat” method) and then each respective ensemble has 24 hours to put their plays together— actors learn their lines, directors stage the movements, everything that most productions take months to do gets concentrated into 24 hours.

The results were surprisingly good. If there were badly flubbed lines or missed marks I didn’t notice. Six plays, roughly 15 to 20 minutes each, were performed at Webster Groves High School running the gamut from thriller to drama to horror to comedy to melodrama. The writers were assigned a number of roles, a setting and a thematic prop—in the spirit of the holidays everything revolved around winter/Christmas in some way. As someone who sees a lot of musicals, this collection of short plays was a refreshing change of pace.

The evening was hosted by Pat Niday of the Improv Shop who did a fine job introducing each play and entertaining the packed house between set changes. The festivities began with Cringe, written by Jason Klefisch, directed by Todd Schaefer, and starred Nick Kelly, Ben Watts and Matt Pentecost. This was my favorite of the evening because I’m a sucker for dark noir-style thrillers. Watts was a seemingly innocent young man waiting for his date to meet him at Tully’s Tavern where Tully (Pentecost) good-naturedly served drinks and told jokes to pass the time. Soon they were joined by Nick Kelly, drunk as a skunk, slurring his speech and barely able to walk. He made small talk with Watts until the young man mentions his date. Kelly invited Watts to join him at the table where the whole scene immediately gets flipped on its head. Kelly isn’t drunk at all, he’s righteously pissed. The girl Watts is waiting in this bar for is his 16 year old daughter. In fact, Watts had been unknowingly chatting online with Kelly for two days, and his daughter was never coming. Watts was a predator, and now he was prey. He tried to leave, but Uncle Tully blocked his exit—he wasn’t about to let this scumbag leave to hurt his niece! The theme prop—a snow shovel—was raised menacingly, and…scene. I woke up feeling rather rough, but this first production had me grinning ear to ear, feeling rejuvenated.

 That’s not to say any of the other plays weren’t up to snuff. The judges for tonight’s event had no real easy choices. The second play, Trinity Park, was another drama though perhaps slightly lighter in tone. It was written by Wendy Renee Greenwood, directed by Rachel Tibbetts, and starred Rachel Hanks, Mollie Amburgey and Larissa White. The story revolved around the reluctant meeting of two sisters, one boisterous, the other restrained. Their sibling rivalry was disrupted by a homeless woman who admonished them for their squabbling and let slip one of their names. Yep, she was the long lost sister who had fled the family after an accident resulting in the death of Larissa White’s son. It sounds more grim to sum up than it actually was, as Wendy Renee Greenwood’s script shined with believable dialogue that featured a number of laugh-out-loud funny lines which gave those deeper revelations that much more impact.

What You Need followed, which was written by Carl Wickman, directed by Chris Chi and starred Brian Claussen and Michelle Catherine. This one reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone. I still haven’t really made up mind as to what Brian Claussen’s character actually was: a desperate salesman, a strange homeless guy with a gimmick for procuring a light meal, a spirit of some sort? He talked Michelle Catherine into letting him in at 3:00 am. He proceeded to demonstrate his line of high quality kitchen knives on everything from bananas to a small table-top Christmas tree. He then grants Catherine her choice of knife for free, takes a few more bananas and leaves. Was it all a dream? Was it a visit by an unusual guardian angel? I think it can be interpreted variously, but Claussen’s character was so bizarre that I liked it despite the ambiguity.

The second half of the evening started with R.O.M.E.R.O.S., a trippy conversation between zombie Jason Klefisch and his half-zombie cannibal daughter Blaire Hamilton, written by Greg Fenner and directed by Em Prio. I forget now what the acronym stands for, but this ode to the creator of “Night of the Living Dead” was a hit with the audience. Klefisch, in pale green-gray face paint, slid effortlessly from doting father to hungry flesh eater. While I felt the story might have sprung a leak or two along the way, the strong acting more than made up for it.

Perhaps I should have saved the trippy adjective for the fifth performance of the night: Fun And Games In The Bedroom, a story of a bad trip written by Zak Allen Farmer, directed by Ellie Schwetye, and starring Margeau Steinau, Reggie Pierre, Troy Turnipseed and Carl Overly Jr. These four friends were lighting up in the bedroom, alternating between giggling over silly things and being overly concerned as to how they came to be in the bedroom in the first place. An attempted football pass of a “Charlie Brown” tree resulted in a head injury that was worse than four stoned people could diagnose themselves. Now the kids were on their way home, the bedroom smelled of cannabis and one of the friends was apparently dead. Dazed and confused indeed.

Last but not least, Line was hilarious melodrama. Written by Spencer Green, directed by Ryan Scott Foizey and starring Kimi Short, Amy Kelly and Evan Kuhn, Line was a period piece about a gentleman and a single mother trying to find a solution to the conundrum of who should be the lucky recipient of the last holiday turkey in town. Being a dapper gentleman, Kuhn had let Kelly get in line in front of him, but when Short announced that there was but one bird left in all of England, polite courtesy went out the window. Eventually the “Wisdom of Solomon” prevails in more ways than one—these two star-crossed turkey shoppers were actually long lost childhood sweethearts. Only in melodrama does a revelation like that not elicit groans, and only in good melodrama does the farce receive strong applause.

Every play had something positive going for it, and as the judges filled out their scorecards for best actor, best actress, best writer, best director, and (I believe) best ensemble awards, Pat Niday and three other members of the Zero Hour Playfest Troupe put on an improvisational whodunit. I dare not try to place judgments as to what elements of live theatre is more challenging than another--plays, musicals and improvisation each present their own challenges—but after seeing their segment I definitely plan to check out the Improv Shop soon.

The award winners weren’t too surprising to me; I certainly couldn’t find any fault with the picks. Nick and Amy Kelly won their respective best actor/actress awards, and Amy doubled up with the ensemble award for Spencer Green’s Line with Evan Kuhn and Kimi Short. Jason Klefisch won for best writer with Cringe and Em Prio won best director for R.O.M.E.R.O.S. There was no question in my mind that Nick Kelly turned in the performance of the night. He went from hilariously stupid drunk to ferociously sober and anguished father in an instant, and everyone in the audience hung on his every word. It was a tremendously fun evening of outstanding St. Louis-area actors and creators, and one I plan to attend regularly in the future.

To find out more, check out the Facebook pages for Theatre Lab (https://www.facebook.com/TheatreLabSTL) and The Players Project Theatre Company (https://www.facebook.com/ThePlayersProjectTheaterCompany). This fundraising event also featured raffle items including tickets to the upcoming production of Jerry Springer: The Opera which opens March 5th 2015 at the New Line Theatre (www.newlinetheatre.com).

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0