The Voices of Reason

EstroGenius 2014
4th Street Theatre
83 E. 4th St., NYC
October 2-November 2, 2014

The EstroGenius Festival, currently in its 15th year, spotlights women artists in theater. It is organized into three separate shows -- Andi's Night, Deb's Night, and Sarah's Night -- that each consist of five short plays totaling about an hour and a half per "Night." At the end of a program, audience members can vote for their favorite performer, writer, and director on a ballot included in the program, and votes can also be cast for favorite play for a one-dollar donation per vote. The winning play receives a special encore performance at the end of the festival.

Andi's Night opens with Snow White Zombie (by Brent Lengel; dir. Sara Stevens), a light, almost fan-fiction-esque imagining of a zombie plague in the land of classic fairy-tale characters. It includes some fun fight choreography and the nice touch of Rapunzel (Mirirai Sithole) -- shorn of her hair and recalling Walking Dead’s Michonne more than a princess in distress -- objectifying the philandering Prince Charming (Dan Berlingeri).

I Have It (by Bekah Brunstetter; dir. Melissa Skirboll) is a stand-out, as is Maureen Von Trease as Lady. Lady and George (Tod Engle, also excellent) talk around their STDs on a date, in a piece that successfully balances some quirky weirdness with emotional sincerity and insight. Sartre might come to mind when watching A Bottle of Vodka (by Connie Schindewolf; dir. Sarah M. Chichester), but all the characters (David Shakopi and Traci Redmond) can think about is that Grey Goose on the table at center stage. As two alcoholics who are literally thrown into the afterlife after a car crash, they find that they cannot open the bottle and instead begin to open up to one another in a mixture of one-upmanship and understanding.

Another memorable entry, Invasion (by Lisa Bruna; dir. Elizabeth Ostler), traps two neighbors (Renee Stork and Trey Blackburn) in their apartment building’s elevator: think Anna Wintour forced to share a confined space with Zach Galifianakis. Of course, they break down these stereotypes as their conversation unfolds and as they break down the barriers between one another, but it is a final takeaway, organic yet still unexpected, that gives this play extra weight.

The program concludes with Glutton for Punishment (by Catherine Noah; dir. Angela Dumlao), which returns us to the afterlife, where Wendy (an engagingly funny Jenny Green), who prides herself on her ethically sourced clothing and food and practices yoga rather than Catholicism, is forced to bargain for her fate with Satan (Lizzy Lincoln) in a bureaucratical-flavored hell that satirizes both New-Age self-congratulation and old-school Church doctrine equally.

Deb's Night begins with Parkersburg (by Laura Jacqmin; dir. Rebecca Lewis-Whitson), which introduces us to three female miners on what turns out to be a particularly bad day at work. The short format doesn't provide the space for the characters or their purpose to fully develop, but the exploitation of the characters, as expendable as the canary in their coal mine, is clear. Overnight (by Natalie Bates; dir. Katie Selyanina) centers on a grieving widow and mother (Kristine Chandler); she requests an unusual sleepover from her friend of 20 years (Jessica Sharples) in an emotional short that asks a lot from the actresses, who are not always quite up to the demanding material. 

In The Maid's Door (by Cheryl Davis; dir. Mary Hodges), Hope Hartley mixes subtle dramatic touches with broad humor in her performance as an African-American maid who agrees to use a segregated entrance in order to secure employment in a wealthy white household. When her granddaughter (zombie-slaying Mirirai Sithole again) displays a shift in generational perspective towards a similar door, the symbolism of the door shifts as well, to possibility, reclamation, and taking ownership. Change across the generation also figures in What’s the Catch? (by Kathryn Zaniboni; dir. Amber Gallery). Father Rodger (Richard Biermann), grandfather Jack (Steve Deighan), and a really big lobster collude to bequeath the grandfather’s boat -- despite promising to sell it -- and property to his granddaughter, Petra (Olivia Kinter), ensuring her continued returns to the island where her father grew up. The entire cast turns in strong performances in this entertaining play, but it would benefit from a longer running time, more space to flesh out elements such as its ideas about connection to nature, why they mean that we should support the subterfuge at the play's center, and why mother Betty (Valerie David) deserves to be the target of crustacean-based trickery (otherwise, the character risks falling into the shrewish wife role).

Deb's program ends with another one of the best plays in this year's festival. For Abby (by Holli Harms; dir. Jenn Bronstein) tracks a series of revelations outside of a cabin at a writers’ retreat and asks whether two people (Alison Preece and Adam Swiderski) can reconnect despite years of guilt and anger resulting from an incident involving the eponymous Abby. A mother bear’s own loss plays an important symbolic role in this finely acted meditation on the power of writing and speaking.

Sarah's Night itself centers on loss; every play features some type of farewell. In Heartland (by Andrea Clardy; dir. Deborah Long), we meet two women meeting in an airport. Marian (Charmaine Broad) hails from the Midwest, but her well-intentioned son has gotten himself in serious trouble far from home, and her encounter with Denitra (Riti Sachdeva) tests the limits of just how much common ground and mutual understanding they can find, even with their own best intentions. Goodbye Avis (by Celeste Koehler; dir. Willow Norton) lightens the mood, as two longtime friends (Helene Galek and Cindy Keiter) come to pay their respects to Avis and instead find themselves deciding her final resting place in a funny, warm take on the ethics of female solidarity.

Mr. Toole (by Vivian Neuwirth; dir. Kristin McCarthy Parker) is a powerful entry that imagines the last days of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, in New Orleans. Lisette (Laura Butler), a student of Toole's, narrates the play, and his failure to realize how profoundly his love of literature has affected and awakened her parallels his tragic failure to see his own masterwork published. Josh Mendelow's Toole is intensely, instantly memorable, and Lisa Pelikan and Richard Vernon would fit right into a Tennessee Williams play as the parents who don't quite understand their son's genius or demons. It is easy to imagine Mr. Toole as a full-length, high-budget production, one that we would be eager to see. A different kind of family dynamic is at play in A Place for Owls (by Fiona Jones; dir. Dina Vovsi), which gives us a less typical window into terrorism as reformed addict Crystal (Robin Kurtz) prepares herself and her young daughter Ruby (Victoria Cawley, who more than holds her own in this performance) to serve God in a fundamentalist Christian holy war masterminded by Prophet Dwayne (Jason Dietz). Ruby would prefer to attend the science fair at school, and the juxtaposition of her science teacher's epistemology with Prophet Dwayne's throws into relief the crucial ways that context and interpretation shape action and worldview. The final conversation perhaps goes on after it has effectively made its point, but Owls as a whole still makes as big an impact as Crystal herself is hoping to make.

This program too saves one of the best for last: G Train Exodus (by Jessica Fleitman; dir. Christie Clark), a kind of love letter, or maybe a tough-love letter, to New York City, but also to a certain way of seeing the world. A struggling artist (Kelsey Lidsky) boards the subway with the intention of leaving the City behind for good, until, of course, the train tries to convince her to at least reconsider. Joe Kopyt has the perfect level of charm and sly humor for this embodied public transportation, and Lidsky shines equally as the exasperated passenger who has come to question her romanticization of life’s mundanities. Their interchange delves into questions about the kind of positive self-delusion that insists on seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, and in the process makes its own poetry out of the pedestrian.

All three programs in the festival provide some great moments, with Andi's and Sarah's Nights being the most consistently strong from beginning to end. If you can only see one, we would have to narrowly award that recommendation to Sarah's Night. Alternatively, you could see all three and decide for yourself. Either way, you can cast some votes and make your own voice heard while supporting and celebrating the voices of women in New York theater. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler