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The National Women’s Theatre Festival Delivers Some Gutsy Work Opening Weekend

Last weekend, The National Women’s Theatre Festival opened its all-virtual Fringe Festival with eight plays, kicking off a month-long festival of experimental work, new plays, workshops, and panels.

The streaming productions, some of which were presented live, some of which were recorded, covered the gamut from the reimagining of classics to the futuristic and absurd.

Fringe21 opened Friday with Christine Toy Johnson’s play Who We Are. Johnson’s play Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom won an award for Outstanding Short Form Play at last year’s Festival. Audiences may be most familiar with Johnson from her performance in the touring production of Come From Away, but this award-winning playwright has spent the shutdown working on new work, advocating for inclusion, and breaking down barriers at The Dramatists Guild.

Despite some technical issues, which resulted in lapses in timing and pacing, Annette Sanchez’s sweet play The Bowels shows tremendous possibilities. Inspired by Sanchez’s own grandmother, there is such a genuineness to this Latine-centered story that it rightfully deserves further development.

Emma Givens’ befuddling and brilliant Terms of Forbearance takes reality shows to another level. A cross between Big Brother and The Truman Show, it is a hard to look away from this fast-paced showpiece, partly because of its frenetic montage sequences and partly because of its disjointedness.

Two classic plays, The Rover and Electra, are being reimagined by two fully virtual theater companies, Brave New Classics and Access Classics, respectively.

Brave New Classics’ first foray into the virtual realm was during last year’s Women’s Theatre Festival. At the time, the company’s successful production of He and She received accolades from the audience and the festival’s jury. Since then, the upstart company, under the artistic direction of Noelle Azarelo, has produced several well-developed, sophisticated virtual shows, including Sex and A Little Radical: The Complete Works of Alice Gerstenberg. The nuttiness of this butchered incarnation of The Rover, however, just borders on sophomoric at times, making it a poor representation of the high caliber of work Azarelo and crew have produced since their Fringe debut a year ago.

On the other hand, Claudia Alick’s direction of Euripedes’ classic tragedy Electra, adapted by Obie Award-winning playwright Adrienne Kennedy, truly exemplifies the kind of inclusive work The National Women’s Theatre Festival champions. According to Alick’s transmedia social justice company website, Calling Up, “This production centers the creativity and leadership of BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQIA2S+, women, and other community members burdened by systemic oppressions; our vision is an anti-racist, trauma-informed, accessible production that embodies the complex identities and outstanding talents of our team.”

Streaming certainly makes theater more accessible, which affords artists and patrons, who have characteristically been underrepresented, a chance to “claim their space” and be seen. And perhaps that explains why the organization continues to embrace the virtual realm, while other theater companies are eager to reopen their doors and welcome in-person audiences back. And while the collaborative possibilities of using these video platforms are irrefutable, my fear is that a weary public, undoubtedly plagued with Zoom fatigue, may miss the opportunity to experience some gutsy work by some of our most enterprising artists.

The National Women’s Theatre Festival runs through July 24. For more information visit: https://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/.

For a complete schedule of upcoming Triangle Theater Events, visit our Calendar Page.

Pictured: Antoine Hunter, Electra.

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