Festival of Short Plays Marks Return to Live Theater in Carrboro

Ten plays, performed by 10 actors, each about 10 minutes in length, each written by North Carolinian writers and selected from over 90 submissions – this is the simple and effective premise of OdysseyStage Theatre’s 2021 NC 10by10 Play Festival.

Last weekend’s performance at The Arts Center in Carrboro — which was also streamed online — offered a striking variety of characters, themes, styles, and voices at a rapid pace. The “variety show” aspect of the festival was exhilarating — and at times even felt improvisational — because of the swiftness with which scenery and costumes were adjusted for each subsequent performance and ease with which the actors inhabited their changing roles.

Although many of these plays were well-written, well-performed, well-executed, and well-staged, only a few were all these things simultaneously. Indeed, certain pieces felt like they missed their mark or struggled to express their “voice” in the brief span of ten minutes. Take, for instance, the opening play, Little Timmy Fell Down the Well Again, a belly-laugh inducing lampoon of the film industry’s obsession with “Oscar” bait”. Despite impressive performances – particularly that of Gus Vieweg as the comically conceited Timmy – it struggled with some of the more basic mechanics of blocking. Characters who were meant to be out of earshot stood right next to one another, doors that were meant to be part of the fictional movie set were used incongruously, and the actors, outside of  Vieweg (whose character was, of course, trapped in a well), meandered around the stage without purpose. While these details would have been negligible in isolation, collectively they appeared to undermine audience engagement. It also should be noted too that throughout the evening the presence of two or three cameramen was visibly present in front of the stage filming during most of the show.

Other plays, however, took more deliberate advantage of the time constraints to create engrossing, tension-filled vignettes, such as Game of Chance, written by Bill Cissna and directed by Jeff Aguiar. Cissna’s compact drama and pointed dialogue about the Vietnam draft lottery recreated the anxiety-ridden isolation of the potential draftees. Here Christian Presley and Dani Coan, in particular, delivered trenchant and convincing performances as a couple placed in jeopardy. 

Additionally, Legendary Battle – written by Thomas Buhrmann and directed by Rachel Klein – made economical use of the limited format. Klein’s staging of Burhmann epic script felt ingenious, colorfully compressing a sprawling backstory, unheroic bathos, and a quip-laden spoof – by means of flamboyant costumes, alternately fanciful and mundane implied sets, and an abbreviated passage of time. Presley, as Slippy the Turtle, and Gale Riggs as Nelgath, had fantastic comedic chemistry. 

The Damned and Neighbors also featured effective comedic chemistry, between Evit Emerson and Travis Walsh, though the satirical elements of Chuck Keith’s and Mark Cornell’s pieces were tendentious and grew stale, even within the short format That being said, the peculiar dynamic between Emerson and Walsh seemed to possess a greater vitality than that afforded by the lines they recited.

The concluding play, When God and the Devil Had Lunch at the Valley Mall Food Court encapsulated the mixed-bag feel of the festival. Written by Teddy Durgin and directed by Noelle Barnard-Azarelo, visually stunning, engaging, and flashy production elements, along with hammy performances, could not compensate for an unimaginative script. 

Still, this festival of plays marks the first time a fully live production has been produced in Carrboro since the pandemic shut theaters down last year — which is no small achievement. As an artistic exercise, this 10by10 festival is a more-than-palatable celebration of North Carolina talent.

OdysseyStage’s 10by10 Festival runs through September 26th at The Arts Center in Carrboro. For more information visit https://www.odysseystage.org/.

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