THEATER | Box Wine Theatre convenes a "Raucous Caucus" at the Bryant-Lake Bowl

Bryant-Lake Bowl. Photo by David Poe (Creative Commons).

Six writers, seven directors, 18 actors. That’s a whole lot of people crammed into the Bryant-Lake Bowl for Box Wine Theatre’s first annual political theater festival of ten-minute plays, known as the “Raucous Caucus.” Thankfully, everybody knows what they’re doing and it makes for a most entertaining, frequently funny, sometimes even thought-provoking, evening.

The playwright friend who attended the show with me admitted, “Ten-minute plays, as a genre, are hard.” Figuring out a satisfying ending is tough enough in a standard play. Finding a way to work up to it in only ten pages is all the more daunting. Even if an author manages write a play rather than just a skit, the timeframe of a ten-minute play often has writers leaning more toward comedy than dram: set up/punchline is much easier to pull off than nuance when you’re pressed for time. Often the most you can hope for is to adequately explore a couple of characters, in lieu of cramming in a lot of plot.

raucous caucus, presented through january 27 at the bryant-lake bowl. for information and tickets ($12), see bryantlakebowl.com.

“Raucous Caucus” features more comedy (some of it dark) than drama. Sometimes the ideas being tackled in these mini-scripts are too big for the time allotted. But I have to admit, I really love them for trying. Even when they don’t sometimes go far enough, it’s fun to watch them get as far as they do.

When “Raucous Caucus” is good, it’s very, very good. One of the best pieces of writing, and acting and directing, is right up front in the opening play, Concessions by Anil B. Hurkadli, directed by Lesley J. Rice. A legislator named Jacob Bollinger (Kyler Chase) has lost his re-election bid in the recent wave of voter discontent over issues like health care reform. His booze-fueled concession speech quickly strays from the standard platitudes and into the much more interesting territory of a man who no longer feels the need to tell people what they want to hear. The speech, and the question-and-answer session that follows, are hilarious. Even when the reporters (Adam Sharp, Sarah Frazier) call Bollinger on his borderline arrogance, he remains undeterred and unrepentant. It’s a great, and entertaining, character study, and Chase makes the most of it, giving us a fully formed human being at the end of his rope and the end of his patience.

The other standout of the evening was one of the few dramatic pieces, A Very Lovely Dress by D. Richard Tucker, directed by Rebekah Rentzel. In it, a young woman (Sarah Frazier) checks in with a tailor (Timothy Otte) making her dress for an important political function for which she has been chosen to present flowers to a visiting dignitary. Tucker has a great way with language and the director and actors bring out the script’s best qualities. The strange thing is that there are two ways to experience the play. We’ve been conditioned as an audience to look for the “twist” ending in everything these days. Anyone who watches the play with that mentality can see the ending coming a mile away. Anyone who doesn’t take that approach has very little time from the big revelation until the play is over to take it all in and process it. This is the one play my friend and I saw that made us wonder, “What if the big reveal happened earlier, and the whole audience had to deal with the knowledge for nearly ten minutes?” A different play, but an equally interesting one. It’s nice when a play (and its production values) prompts you to think of variations on its larger world.

The play my friend (and the rest of the audience) laughed with the most was co-artistic director Adam Sharp’s play The E-Word, directed by John Haynes. My friend said, “I felt guilty laughing at that play as much as I did.” In it, a father (Tim Dybevik) uses an irrational fear of science and civilization to drag his wife (Judith Froemming) and children (Mike Stanczak, Phoebe Bottoms) to live in a cave and submit to his brainwashing. The absurdities pile up fast and furious, including a wacky bear attack.

Sharp’s other script in the mix, E.T. vs. Predator, directed by Box Wine’s other co-artistic director Bethany Simmons, is also very funny, but relies on a sci-fi fanboy’s love of the Predator movies and E.T. in order to get a lot of its laughs. The over-the-top antics (and costumes) of Captain Skullcrusher (Shad Cooper), Commander Bonesteel (Kyler Chase), and Lieutenant Hammerfist (Cody Stewart), are also amusing on their own merits, however, so it balances out. Sharp makes another acting appearance as Sargent Et. How is all this political, you ask? There’s much arguing over the virtues of diversity in the Predator hunting parties. Just run with it.

Two scripts had promising ideas, but the ten-minute clock didn’t give them enough time to properly gestate. In both cases, the artists involved turn in good work, but they can only go as far as the script will let them. Alien to Antiquity by Stacey Lane, directed by Ryan Henderson, finds Lady Justice (Amy Vickory)—blindfold, scales and all—having a rather unsuccessful employee evaluation, courtesy of two short-sighted men (Peter Simmons, Michael Kelley), one of whose lives is about to change radically, and not for the better. First Debate by Sam Graber, directed by Ben Layne, finds a Senator (Joel Raney) on break in a televised debate furiously strategizing with his campaign manager (Michael Brown) and web geek (Shannon Troy Jones), trying to find an “out there” issue to give him some traction with the voters.

The other script on the roster, Kiss My Paczki, Mr. King of the World by K Biadaskiewicz, directed by Scott Pakudaitis, lets the audience in on a mother’s (Kari Elizabeth Kjeldseth) conflicted thoughts when her daughter (Ann Rice) announces she’s joining the military. This one suffered from an opening night battle with the ventilation system in the theater, trying to pump in some heat at the some time one of the actresses was struggling to be heard.

It’s a solid evening, but the company handled all the material so well, it made me wish they’d tackled still more thorny issues, which were only hinted at throughout the night. For instance, I longed for a well-spoken conservative voice. The “liberal bias” people crow about made some of the arguments in these plays feel a little one-sided. Also, God and faith were just used here as excuses for ignorance and violence. Understanding “the other side” would have intrigued me more than my own point of view, which I take for granted.

But this is just the first of many political theater festivals from Box Wine. That’s the plan.

Maybe next year...

Meanwhile, the inaugural voyage of the concept is highly recommended.

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    Matthew A. Everett's picture
    Matthew A. Everett

    Matthew A. Everett is the playwright in residence for Workhouse Theatre Company, helping with their new play development program The Greenhouse Project and its monthly play reading series the second Tuesday of every month.  Upcoming readings include plays by Sarah Saltwick (3/11/14) and Mike Peroz (5/13/14).  Plays for April (4/8/2014) and June (6/10/2014) are still being determined.