A suicidal husband, a vaudeville act down on its luck, a pair of commedia dell’arte clowns, two morbidly sensitive shepherds, and a train passenger trapped in the loo with an idiot conductor on the far side of the door. What do these characters have in common? Well, brought together in one-act plays under the aegis of Island Theatre Workshop, they represent a fruitcake slice of the human predicament. They are also, as samples of the absurdist tradition, a whole bunch of fun.
New York playwright Frederick Stroppel demonstrates in Domestic Violence, directed by Kevin Ryan, that the end of life can be a laughing matter. The curtain rings up on a bedroom and a man named Michael (Mike Gilman) who sits at the edge of a bed with a gun to his head. It’s a typical moment, naturally, in the course of a marriage, but our attention is riveted. Enter the wife (Treather Gassman) who, while she fails to grasp the significance of the hastily-lowered gun, is nevertheless aware of Michael’s less-than-salubrious mood. There are guests downstairs, and she tries to incorporate her spouse into a rousing game of Pictionary. When he resists, she sings, “Every party needs a pooper, that’s why I invited you, party pooper!”
We see at a glance that the man’s depression feeds the woman’s insecurity. Out of this vortex of defeat she has built an impregnable shield of flawless behavior but, hold on, it’s her very perfect-ness that he finds intolerable! An example: She buys her hubby Super Bowl tickets on the 40-yard line, the event to take place on their anniversary for which she cheerfully waives any obligation for him to spend it with her. “You’re not human!” he rails. Stop the presses, there’s a man in this world who doesn’t want a Stepford wife? Is this possible? Well, probably not, but because we’re watching the theatre of the absurd, we’ll suspend our disbelief for the brief period necessary. In reality a spouse this testy, male or female — and their name is Legion — would find fault no matter what the beloved’s personality traits, perfect or imperfect.
Gilman and Gassman are convincing as the two souls stuck in this danse macabre, and playwright Stroppel may have raised more issues to provoke thoughts in his single act than did Ingmar Bergman in his two-plus hours of Scenes From A Marriage.
In Extensions, by Brooklyn-born playwright and screenwriter Murray Schisgal and directed by Lee Fierro, two performers play gin rummy while they wait for the phone to ring. Bob (Leslie J. Stark) wears a black bowler hat, a red scarf and flooding white socks under knee-hugging black pants. Betsy (Jessica Buckley) is Betty Boop-cute in a saucy red bandana, gypsy skirt and bangled jacket. Apparently weeks, months, maybe years have elapsed since they received their last booking, and a corollary to that is that the thousands of people they once knew have stopped calling, waving, or seeking them out in any way whatsoever. “We don’t even get wrong numbers anymore,” wails Bob.
Meanwhile they’re starting to fade from the other’s awareness. “Bob, Bob, Bob!” Betsy is forced to hail his name three or more times before she snags his attention, and he must do the same with her.
And then their long-lost booking agent, Leibling, calls with a splendid offer: a movie deal with Columbia Pictures, first class airline tickets, per diem expenses, and the rental of a sky-blue Japanese car. All of a sudden the floodgates open as the phone starts to ring off the hook again. All of life’s stimuli pour in — the good with the bad, even the wrong numbers.
So what’s better? Silence or a continuously clanging telephone? Maybe Bob and Betsy would do well to take a small part of their paycheck from Columbia and invest in an answering machine.
Aria De Capo, by Edna St. Vincent Millay and directed by Lee Fierro, carries a glitter and a magic that’s pure Millay. Da Capo is the best known of the verse dramas written by the artist, herself best known for her poetry and, secondarily, her bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village.
Lights twinkle on a long lace-draped table of wine, a single white rose and other delicacies. At one end sits a fairy tale figurine, Columbine (Katharine Pilcher), in layers of pink tulle, and at the other end, Pierrot (Brad Austin) in the classic white-ruffled collar and black and white satins of a Louis Quatorze-era clown. The two figures are bored with romance, bored with caviar, and yet they go on babbling sweet and sour aperçus at one another because they know nothing else. “I’ve become a socialist,” announces Pierrot, apropos of nothing: “I love humanity but I hate people.” And later, when Columbine declares she’s no actress, Pierrot points out to her, “You are blond, are you not? You have no education. Can’t act? You underrate yourself!”
Into these pretty posturings steps the stage manager, Cothurnus, dressed in the grim reaper’s black cape with cowl, ready ahead of schedule to bring on the next players and the next scene, a tragedy. Pierrot and Columbine give way, therefore, to Thyrsis (Mae V. Oskan) and Corydon (Adam Stilgoe), two shepherd lads who immediately object to the frivolous table: “We cannot act a tragedy with comic properties!”
But stage managing Death insists they proceed, so the two sit down and begin their idyll of tending sheep, as they wax eloquent about the scenery with high-falutin’ Shakespearean language. To pass the time, they build a wall between them, and suddenly we see the microcosm for a nice place like Yugoslavia breaking apart (or in St. Vincent Millay’s terms, perhaps the whole of 1940s Europe?).
Like all tragedies, this one ends with fresh corpses littering the stage. Death as Stage Manager returns to restore the comic set, though Columbine and Pierrot protest, “We can’t play the scene with two dead bodies under the table!” The stage manager replies, “Play the farce. The audience will forget.” And he’s right, we do forget!
“Is it Tuesday?” croons Pierrot. “I’ll kiss you if it’s Tuesday.”
The final one-act is This Seat Occupied by Susan Shafer and Ron Frankel, and directed by Leslie J. Stark. A female passenger (Talia Luening) is stuck in a rest room on a moving train. The conductor (Leslie J. Stark) can’t unlock the door. He enlarges his passenger’s frustration by revealing that since she will undoubtedly miss her stop, he’ll need to charge her more for the longer ride. He also takes the opportunity to slip a customer satisfaction survey under the door. This is absurdist theatre at its funniest and most ludicrous, but it almost pales in comparison to some of the real-life inanities we encounter in modern times.
The Island Theatre Workshop will present this evening of one-act plays again this coming weekend. For entertainment and food-for-thought aplenty, there is no better way to spend a late March night on Martha’s Vineyard.
An Evening of One-Acts continues tonight, Saturday and Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m. at Katharine Cornell Theatre on Spring street in Vineyard Haven.